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Why I Wrote 'Leading' With Sir Alex Ferguson

30/11/2015 20:30 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:12 GMT

No form of non-fiction is deadlier than an account of an organisation, that is written by an insider, sanitised by his colleagues and buffed by a marketing department. It is a guaranteed sleeping draught. That's why, despite repeated requests, I have never been tempted to write an account of Sequoia Capital, the firm for which I have worked for 30 years, which is best known for making the first investments in companies such as Apple, Cisco, Google and PayPal and, more recently, WhatsApp, VIP Shops, AirBnB and DropBox.

Instead, when casting about for a way to convey the attributes that I thought made for winning organisations, I decided to approach Sir Alex Ferguson, the longtime manager of Manchester United and the most successful coach in the history of professional sports, to see whether he was interested in writing a book about leadership. I first broached the topic in 2008 before Sir Alex had won 12 of the 38 trophies he amassed while at the helm of United. We stayed in touch and, after he retired and had published his best-selling auto-biography, the decks were finally clear and we started to put pen to paper. This led to the recent publication of our book, 'Leading'.

Sir Alex is the first to admit (with characteristic modesty) that, while managing, he had never attempted to codify his approach. As we talked, it quickly became apparent that the virtues in which he believed are as germane for an investment firm, or a founder of a young technology company striving for greatness, as they are for a football club aspiring to win a European Cup.

It always begins - whether in a kick about on a school playground, a garage in Palo Alto or an apartment in Hangzhou - with an obsessive. Obsessiveness leads to knowledge and eventually to mastery that, in turn, provides the practitioner with an authority that provides the foundation for leadership. That's as true for Bill Gates, Larry Page or Steve Jobs as it is for Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger or, indeed, Sir Alex himself.

None of these men began with any particular advantages over others who, on the surface, possessed more knowledge and experience. Yet, in the early 1970s, Bill Gates steeped himself in the minutiae of micro-computing so that, as a teenager, he came to know more about the subject than the leaders of IBM or HP. In different fields the same is true today for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Tencent's Pony Ma or Uber's Travis Kalanick.

In technology, where shifts can occur abruptly, it is easier to acquire mastery of a new development than it is in football where change occurs far more gradually. This makes Sir Alex's accomplishments all the more remarkable and helps explain why, before joining United, his apprenticeship as a player and manager took about a quarter of a century while for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg their apprenticeships were completed in a handful of years.

For the obsessives, life and work are synonymous. They would not feebly declare, as do so many Millennials, that they are "passionate" about a pursuit - since the gap between passion and obsession is as great as the distance between Minsk and Miami or, for that matter, between management and leadership. Nothing great is ever achieved without an obsession.

Perhaps this explains why so many people read books about leadership, but so few readers become leaders. As Sir Alex and I sifted through the lessons of his life, I couldn't help but think that they were remarkably similar to what would be said by the founder of a distinctive company or someone who has transformed an organisation. Drive, hunger, a sense of ownership, empathy, a belief in the power of youth, the virtues of organic growth, a fear of failure, an ability to bounce-back from adversity, a refusal to follow competitors, a willingness to embrace the ideas of others, and a frugal nature are all hallmarks of Sir Alex.

The difference between Sir Alex and others who aspired to achieve just a fraction of his accomplishments is consistency. It's the hourly and daily application of these attributes that is the particular accomplishment of the great leaders. For them, consistency springs from one inexhaustible source - obsession.