What leadership lessons can we learn from a football manager?

Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest football manager of all time, love or hate Manchester United most people will agree that his 25 leadershipyear reign is one of the most successful in history, not only did he manage a football team, he shaped a club that ‘ ranks among the most successful and valuable franchises in sports’. This week I came across a fascinating case study by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse examining Ferguson’s management approach, I recommend you read the full article here, below are the highlights which I believe all leaders can apply in business.

Set High Standards—and Hold Everyone to Them

We talk a lot on this blog of standards, vision and goals. Getting the team to buy into these standards is crucial for business success but it can also apply to our personal lives:

Ferguson speaks passionately about wanting to instill values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up—in other words, to make them winners….

Ferguson: Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club—this applied to all my team building and all my team preparation, motivational talks, and tactical talks.

If you are not happy with some aspect of your life perhaps its time to raise your standards and strive to live up to them. Sometimes we need to take a moment and reevaluate the things that we have accepted in our lives. It is not an easy task but if you can commit to it; life will be much more enjoyable.

Have you got strong enough reasons to follow through everyday?

Is your vision strong enough to pull you everyday?

Ferguson had a very strong work ethic and energy which spread throughout the team, he was always the first one there in the morning because he knew there was a job to be done; attitudes can become contagious if you lead from the front. When players stepped out of line and didn’t uphold the standards set by the club they were dealt with quickly, no matter how big the name!

In 2005, when longtime captain Roy Keane publicly criticized his teammates, his contract was terminated.

Sometimes holding ourselves accountable to the standards we have set for ourselves is the hardest challenge but great leaders do exactly that, everyday!

 It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual.

Match the Message to the Moment

Communication in business is still one of the hardest challenges to overcome. The media portrayed Ferguson as quite a fearsome leader, with stories of half-time team talks which resulted in the throwing of coffee cups so I was quite surprised to read that he worked hard to tailor his message to the situation.

Fear has to come into it. But you can be too hard; if players are fearful all the time, they won’t perform well either. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see that showing your anger all the time doesn’t work. You have to pick your moments. As a manager, you play different roles at different times. Sometimes you have to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a father.

As a leader you have to inspire, teach and reprimand when necessary. How you deliver your message is just as important as the words you use.

No one likes to be criticized. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player—for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing “Well done.” Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.

The case study goes on to mention that if a player did play badly during a game Ferguson would give the feedback straight away, he wouldn’t wait until Monday. When Monday arrived it was already forgotten as he was thinking about the next game. Giving timely feedback and moving on is another lesson we can learn.

Rely on the Power of Observation

As Ferguson started to delegate the training sessions to his assistant manager and coaches it gave him  the opportunity to supervise:

 The switch from coaching to observing, he told us, allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances. “As a coach on the field, you don’t see everything,” he noted. A regular observer, however, can spot changes in training patterns, energy levels, and work rates.

It’s very easy to be caught up in the day-to-day tasks of business, some managers can find it difficult to delegate tasks and trust their team. But as a leader you have to be able to spot potential issues before they become a problem.

My presence and ability to supervise were always there, and what you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable. Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped.

Are you to involved?  What tasks can you delegate to become a better leader for your team?


Source: Ferguson’s Formula

2 thoughts on “What leadership lessons can we learn from a football manager?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s