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


Liam O'Brien
Thursday 20 December 2012 02:05
Sir Alex Ferguson gives his lecture to students at Harvard University
Sir Alex Ferguson gives his lecture to students at Harvard University

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.”

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