I was thinking, recently, about what it takes to remain successful, over the long term, at the top level in a competitive, volatile and fast changing world. Then I was amazed to come across this statistic on Twitter (via @theEpicGooner).
“Sir Alex Ferguson has outlasted 5 American Presidents, 5 British Prime Ministers, 10 Liverpool, 18 Chelsea and 19 Man City Managers.”
Remember that we are talking about football management – a highly competitive, frequently unstable, short term role. His rival, and admirer, Arsene Wenger recently said of Ferguson: “I don’t remember anybody else being at the top, top level for such a long time.”
I asked myself a simple question. ‘How?’ Then another couple. ‘Why?’ And; ‘what qualities has he got that make him so relevant as a leader with such longevity?’
Here are 10 of the factors which come to mind.
1. An ability to stay fresh and re-invent himself. Ferguson keeps learning and evolving – as do his teams. He is highly motivated and pursues a state of continual excellence.
Wenger continues: “His commitment is always there, you never feel that his commitment is weakened.
“What I admire maybe the most in him is his forward-thinking. He is always ready to move with the times and never speaks about what he has done before.”He knows when to renew the team, when you have to make changes, and that is exceptional because you can sometimes be a little bit lazy when you have so much success.
“He’s never been like that, he’s always on his toes and he can renew what is needed, when it is needed.”
Ferguson evolves and refreshes his team and squad continually. He has had four or five different distinct squads and eras, yet has retained some continuity – a stable management spine led by himself and trusted long termers like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs on the pitch.
2. An eye for planning and detail. Ferguson is known to concern himself with every last detail and this is not confined to coaching. He has planned the development of a club and business. He’s developed the youth team to feed future success and has awareness of business side of running a massive club. His stamp is all over the club. Just like other modern football management icons Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. And, like so many others, he recognises the value of the ‘6P’s (Perfect Planning Prevents Particularly Poor Performance) – leaving nothing to chance. Ferguson retains a short term goal focus (building towards peak performance at critical junctures in the season and relentlessly winning trophies), a medium focus (squad regeneration) and the long term – building the club structure.
3. He is not totally enslaved by the drive for success at work. He has perspective and balance. He actually has a life outside the game. He’s grounded by his roots, his love of his family – including wife Cathy, three children (one son Darren is also a football club manager) and is deeply involved outside of football in horse ownership and racing.
4. His sense of humour – often mischievous – is a great pressure coping strategy. He toys with journalists (recently making a Leveson enquiry related quip at their expense), winds up rivals and defuses the pressure the media seek to apply when looking for a story. Even when he famously refused to answer an inane question and walked out of interview – he did it with a smile.
We see often see humour as well as the famous Ferguson anger.
5. Ferguson is an astute communicator. His humour can be mischievous and he often indulges in mind games with opponents (famously Kevin Keegan) in an attempt to deflect them from their true purpose. He seeks to set the agenda and understands the importance of setting his agenda. He know that what he talks about others around him think about. Sometimes he will try and set the agenda for referees.
Ferguson may make a derogatory comment at a pre-match press conference about the opposition manager or their team. This has led to public rows with managers such as Kevin Keegan, Arsène Wenger, Rafael Benítez and Mark Hughes. Sometimes he puts pressure on opponents by outrageously claiming (reverse psychology) that they, not Manchester United, are match favorites.
Ferguson manages people effectively – players, the media and football officials including match referees. The internet reveals many examples of him blowing hot and cold, tapping his watch at linesmen and referees. He’s prepared to publicly question the competence and fair mindedness of top referees such as Martin Atkinson (which resulted in a fine and touchline ban in March 2011). Whoever he targets: Ferguson sets the agenda, can manipulate the emotions of others, and, is capable of undermining their focus and confidence.
His good grasp of the principles of communication, psychology, leadership and influence was probably informed by the tough post of being a shop steward in the notoriously tough Clydeside shipyards.
And of course the media are always around him. Not only is he successful, but he’s always interesting, direct and often controversial. So his message always gets around.
6. Nobody doubts that Ferguson has absolute personal authority. His upbringing in the Govan area of Glasgow and work on Clydeside may have helped here.
Ferguson acquired a reputation as a disciplinarian, with East Stirlingshire striker Bobby McCulley saying he had “never been afraid of anyone before but Ferguson was a frightening bastard from the start.
Aberdeen players nicknamed him Furious Fergie. He fined one of his players for overtaking him on a public road and kicked a tea urn at the players at half time after a poor first half.
Later he cracked down on a drinking culture amongst some of the Manchester United squad when he joined in 1986. The Fergie hair dryer treatment is legendary. There is only one leader. That leader is prepared to be ruthless. David Beckham, Lee Sharpe, Jap Stam and others all know this. Even exceptionally tough characters such as Roy Keane have learnt it.
7. Despite being a strong authority figure he is a mentor and genuinely interests himself with the well-being of his players. Ryan Giggs, who has been a pivotal member of the first team for most of Ferguson’s reign, has whole-hearted praise: “He’s just a great man. Even though he is managing the greatest club in the world and the biggest club in the world, he still has time for any young player or any player with problems – both on and off the pitch.”
David Beckham echoes the sentiment: “Playing under him for the years that I did, well – he was like a father figure to me.
“I moved up from London to Manchester and he always said to me, ‘If you’ve got any worries, come and knock on my door – it’s always open’.
“I was scared to go and knock on his door because of who he is but he always made me feel as if I was part of a family and that’s how you feel when you’re at Manchester United.”
The balance of showing his interest and concern for his team engenders respect and loyalty. But there is also that clear line.
8. Ferguson is absolutely honest about himself. When his Aberdeen team lost the 1979–80 Scottish League Cup Final versus Dundee United he took the blame for the defeat, saying he should have made changes to the team for the replay.
At the same time he proudly heaps praise on players when he feels it’s due and singles them out in his post match interviews regularly. He builds loyalty and is prepared to communicate frankly and publicly when it’s required.
He gives feedback – appraising himself and others. This is informed by a perceptive and knowledgeable mind.
9. Determination. Ferguson absolutely hates losing. Maybe his upbringing is again a factor here. His determination was part of the reason he remains involved in football after his 65th birthday. He wanted another European success, got beaten, but stayed on as he wanted to win again.
Manchester United also reflect this grit. They score lots of late goals, come back against teams with relentless frequency and display great mental strength. The classic Champions League late double strike and victory in 1999 showcased what a winning mentality Ferguson invokes.
That he is well-grounded, (despite being surrounded by many modern footballers who strike one as being out of touch and money obsessed) is determined, gritty and realistic perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise when you realise that many other tough and great modern football managers came out of Glasgow and environs. Sir Matt Busby, George Graham, Kenny Dalglish and Jock Stein. Despite his wealth and success he appears to possess humility, perspective, self-confidence and grim determination.
10. Ferguson has credibility. He was a player, including at Rangers, gained managerial success at Aberdeen, then Manchester United and at 70 he still takes training sessions. He’s hands on and earns the respect of those around him.
He leads the players and has credibility and influence with his board. A leader needs a clear, focussed picture of where they’re going, a sense of what success looks like and how they will achieve it. Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric Co., said, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion.” Ferguson does this.
You can recognise in Ferguson many management and leadership qualities.
In summary – there are many attributes which have kept Sir Alex at the top of the game for so long.
We all know about the trebles, the come-backs and the trophies. So, after more than two and a half decades (more than a generation!) leading his team, on 2nd September 2012, Ferguson managed his 1000th league game with Manchester United against Southampton. Also in September, he won his 100th game in the Champions League (a 1-0 win over Galatasaray at Old Trafford). And he and his team are going strong at the time of writing.
He has led Manchester United as they’ve become one of the most profitable and bankable brands in the sporting world. Wenger sums up Ferguson’s achievement: “In some ways it is scary as well because you think when this guy leaves the club, no matter of the quality of who comes in after him, it will be a huge hole….”It is a job where you need to dedicate your life to football and Ferguson has done that and that deserves massive respect.
“He has won absolutely everything and, of course, that is something exceptional.”
An exceptional performance by an extraordinary man over an extended period. Longevity and relevance personified in a cut-throat, highly competitive, world increasingly driven by short termism.
Contact us if you’d like to explore how these insights about Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity and success can help you.