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


22 Principles of Standards part 2

Part 1 of 22 Principles of Standards

11. Human Potential implies fulfilment, hints at greatness and seeks possibilities

You were born to greatness. Having a life mission implies that world has need of you. In fact, the world has been preparing you to fill this need with one incredible life experience after another. Finding and fulfilling your potential will lead you to your highest experience in this life. Believe it, you have a mission. It is the gateway to your personal greatness. Greg Anderson 

12. Personal Development is based on activity not improving

13. Significant personal growth will not  occur in your life unless you are continually challenged

To many people ‘play it safe’, content in the world they have constructed for themselves, where they feel a sense of emotional security with their work and their decision-making. True entrepreneurs continually test these imaginary barriers, push limits and ‘get out of their comfort zone’. It might be a well-known cliché but you will not grow or progress if you don’t challenge yourself and have new experiences.  A fear of the unknown will keep you stuck forever. So the trick here is to let go of your expectations and accept the results of your actions.

14. A real decision is measured by the actions, no decisions, no action

15. Whoever looks outside, dreams /Whoever looks inwardsawakens

“Your vision will become real only when you look into your heart. He who looks outward dreams. He who looks inward awakens.” Carl Jung

What aspects of your professional life do you ascribe to fate or destiny?

In what ways could you take accountability for them?


16.Circumstances don’t define you , taking responsibility does

17. What we focus on– expands

18. Learning to ‘pause’ with intention– allows growth to catch up with us

“Today, there is so much NOISE around us that silent reflection can be a challenge…but it is possible.  You can fill your day with many refreshing and calming moments of quiet reflection by getting into the good habit of pausing several times in the day to step aside of what you are doing and give yourself the gift of brief but meaningful silence.” Read more

19. Breakthroughs lead to growth

20.We become the people we hang around with

This is hard for people to accept sometimes but look at the 5 closest people around you, do they challenge you to become a better person? Do they support your dreams? Are they the kind of people you want to be like? It’s possible to take control over who it is that influences us. And it’s something I recommend everybody do, especially if you want to be successful.

21. Confident humility – Believing in ourselves to become comfortable with our personal power

“Humility is not self-deprecating, but real and honest. When someone is who he or she really is and does not act as if he or she is more than he is, that is not arrogance, but secure identity.”

Having confidence, believing in yourself is not arrogant, This ‘confident humility’ is when you function out of the best of who you are, while being fully aware (and open with) who you are not. – See more


22.Understanding Intellectual Perseverance is an ultimate standard of excellence

Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.

Read More


I trust you have enjoyed the 2 part series on the principles of setting standards! What has been your biggest insight and how are you going to apply it to your life?

22 Principles of Standards part 1

“It is a funny thing about life: If you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it.”
– W. Somerset Maughamcreate the life you want

What standards do you set for yourself? Have you even set any standards? 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 everyday. 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. In the next 2 blog posts we are going to look at the 22 principles of setting standards!

1. See things bigger than they are

Give yourself permission to dream, to grow as a person we have to believe everything is possible!

2.People see their own reality , therefore we have the power to change it

3. Permission to succeed Beyond Motivation and Positive Thinking

Great book for further reading: Permission to Succeed: Learn How and Why to Give Yourself “The fear of success, also known as        self-sabotage, paralyzes million of men and women from all walks of life, preventing them from fulfilling their dreams and achieving their goals. This book is the first to identify the condition that underlies, and actually produces, self-sabotage: success anorexia.”

4.Entrepreneurs with Emotional maturity learn to handle the ‘The stress and fear dynamics’

Read Using Emotional intelligence to progress towards your goals 3 blog series to help you master emotional intelligence.

5. Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself

You are the one who is the single biggest influence in your journey! Stop waiting for the perfect time, create what you want! Read my blog post  what journey do you wish for yourself?

6. The 2mm shift can make the biggest difference

“I’ve often found that just by adjusting what you do and how you do it in a small way often reveals results that you would never have expected. Adjusting the way you stand, sit, think, the words you use, how you look at some one, a slight touch, how you respond all impact on how successful, confident, fulfilled you are and how meaningful your life becomes.” – Read the blog http://the2mmshift.blogspot.co.uk/ – great inspiration, small changes can make a big difference.

7. Emotional Mastery is the difference to Success Intelligence

8. Courage and certainty must come from within

9. Be willing to ‘serve others’ maintains the highest spiritual standard

10. Motivation gets you going – discipline keeps you growing