Sir Alex Ferguson's leadership skills may be studied at Harvard, but is he right? We ask a panel of experts to dissect the Manchester United manager's lessons for life

 

Sir Alex Ferguson might be the most successful manager in Premier League football, but his methods have always been controversial.

The Manchester United supremo was rumoured to have kicked a boot into David Beckham’s multi-million-pound face, and he’s frequently fined for his exuberance on the touchline. Wayne Rooney spoke of players’ fear of being subjected to the “hairdryer” treatment, when the manager would bellow in their faces like a “Babyliss Turbo Power 2200”.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Sir Alex recently gave a talk to equally ruthless, albeit more refined, students at the Harvard Business School. He had been the subject of a study by one of the Boston establishment’s academics, and flew over to discuss its findings.

The report revealed that he installed tanning booths at the training ground to boost his pampered players’ Vitamin D levels, but his lecture showed his tough and uncompromising management style. He told the aspiring CEOs, entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers that he wasn’t afraid of giving the big egos a dressing down, and how he used unusual stories to rev up the team for important games.

But would his advice work in the real world? We asked three experts (a business behavioural science specialist, a psychologist and a life coach) to give their verdict.

1. The fragility of today’s players

Sir Alex said: “Players these days have lived more sheltered lives, so they are much more fragile now than 25 years ago. I was very aggressive all those years ago. But today I’m more mellowed… And I can better handle those more fragile players now.”

Daniel Read, a Professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, questioned whether it wasn’t just age that had calmed Sir Alex. “In the past he may have gotten away with what these days you might call bullying,” he said. “If the managers from 50 years ago were in the game today they could well end up in court.” Psychologist Oliver James said: “I don’t necessarily believe the players are fragile. They only end up in a top team having worked hard, and many of them are from working class backgrounds. But there has been a significant increase in the amount of narcissism in society.”

2. To praise or not to praise

Sir Alex said: “For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing “well done”. You don’t need to use superlatives.”

“I think this is a reasonable approach,” said Mr Read. “It’s like being in a relationship: If somebody says ‘I love you’ all the time, then it doesn’t mean very much.” Mr James agreed, saying that by overpraising, you risk an “inflation of the currency”. But life coach Roz Spencer said: “Having one gear is probably not helpful. Praise needs to be specific, authentic and timely.”

3. Getting Angry

Sir Alex said: “You can’t always come in shouting and screaming… But in the football dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out you players’ mistakes.”

Our business specialist said that while it’s fine for Sir Alex to get angry, it’s not necessarily the best way to go about things. “Because Manchester United are at the top, and because players don’t really have anywhere to go once they’ve reached the top, they will put up with an angry boss. But managers of second tier clubs – and second tier businesses – would find people leaving to go elsewhere.” Mr James said: “I think he’s probably someone who quite easily reverts to toddler mode. As we grow up, we learn to control our anger, but I suspect when he’s frustrated he still has a temper tantrum.”

4. How to inspire

Sir Alex said: “I like to tell different stories, and use my imagination. I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli… So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.”

Life coach Roz Spencer said Sir Alex gets the best out of his players because he “teaches with his own passions and exuberance,” and this is visible to the players. Mr James said: “The Bocelli story is humourous, but it shows how he gives the team a narrative towards victory. He probably does what I call love bombing, whereby despite his shouting, there is someone on the team who offers something reparative, who makes the players feel good.”

5. Keeping your Galácticos in line

Sir Alex said: “When I work with the biggest talents, I tell them that hard work is a talent too. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out… And if anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.”

Mr James said: “This is his real genius. He would never buy a Gazza or a Balotelli, or people who are personality disordered, because he knows it’s impossible to integrate those people into a team.” Mr Read said the situation wasn’t true to life. “If you’re a director at Apple, and you can replace someone with the best candidates from the best schools, then it is easier to fire a talented person with a big ego. But in smaller firms, if someone is bringing in 30 per cent of your sales, then that person will get special treatment.”

6. Leaving people out of the team

Sir Alex said: “I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up.”

Our life coach said in some respects, Sir Alex’s team squad selections represented what goes on in the average workplace. “It’s all about making the best decisions for the organisation.” But Mr James said Sir Alex’s policy of keeping the team sheet a secret until two hours before the game wasn’t best practice, saying, “You’re keeping everyone in edge.”

7. Chucking out your chintz

Sir Alex said: “For me the hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.”

Mr James said: “Letting go of people still in their prime isn’t a bad thing: It can bring in a lot of money, and there are always more players where they came from.” Mr Read said: “It’s not so simple in the workplace: if management show no loyalty to the workers, the workers will show no loyalty to the company.”

Suggested Topics
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
News
news
News
peopleCampaign 'to help protect young people across the world'
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
i100
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker