Five Lessons in Leadership from Manchester United’s Former Manager
As a player, coach, and manager, Alex Ferguson learned the importance of discipline and thinking long term.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Firing people is never easy, but “nothing beats honesty.” | Stacy Geiken Photography
A retired Scottish footballer and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist don’t seem like the likeliest of friends and collaborators. But Alex Ferguson, the long-time manager of the ultra-successful Manchester United team, and Michael Moritz, the chairman of Sequoia Capital, have more in common than you might suspect.
Ferguson, whose team won 38 trophies in the 27 years he coached, and Moritz, an early investor in Google, Yahoo, and Airbnb, have both thought long and hard about the art of management. Together they’ve written a book on the art of management — Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United — that distills the lessons in leadership Ferguson learned while heading the world’s most successful sports franchise.
Becoming a star on the football pitch (as Europeans call a soccer field) and in business requires “practice, practice, and practice,” and the successful manager must always be prepared to “retune things,” Ferguson told a group of Stanford Graduate School of Business students.
Moritz and Ferguson appeared together at a View From The Top session on October 19, likely the only time that two men who were knighted by the Queen of England shared a stage at the business school. Here are five lessons in leadership they offered during their discussion and in their book.
Be Consistent in Imposing Discipline
Being consistent, says Ferguson, is the essence of being a leader. Discipline is an important aspect of management, and employees need to know who you are and trust that you are right when you impose rules. But don’t be too quick to resort to severe sanctions. “Inexperienced, or insecure, leaders are often tempted to make any infraction a capital offense. That is all well and good — except, once you have hung the person, you are plumb out of options,” he says.
Embrace Your Entire Team
Long before he became a coach, Ferguson was a player, and he still remembers the coach who didn’t say good morning but would just walk by. “You must recognize that people are working for you. Knowing their names, saying good morning in the morning is critical,” he says.
And every time you win a cup or a trophy, Ferguson says, you should bring every member of your staff into that canteen — “the laundry girls, the canteen staff, the groundsmen” — and pour the champagne for everyone because it’s their trophy as much as the players’.
Firing Is Hard — Do It Right
Firing people is never easy, says Ferguson, but once a manager realizes it needs to be done, “nothing beats honesty. I gradually learned that there was no point beating about the bush by taking somebody out for dinner or sending his wife a box of chocolates or flowers to try to soften the news. The gimmicks don’t change the message.”
Think Long Term
Having the time to establish a solid foundation and to gradually build toward long-term prosperity is not a luxury afforded most football managers or business leaders, Moritz says. The pressure to win or the need to produce quarterly earnings makes the quick fix almost irresistible, but the top management of Manchester United sheltered Ferguson from that pressure. “This freedom from the tyranny of immediate results enabled Sir Alex to constantly work on the composition of the club several years into the future, without worrying whether he would still be there if United had a bad losing streak,” says Moritz.
Body language is important: Someone who sits up properly and is leaning forward a little is showing that they are eager to start, says Ferguson. Asking questions at a job interview is crucial. “I often get a measure of someone by listening to the questions they pose. It shows how they think; offers a sense of their level of experience and degree of maturity,” he says.
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