The Blog

What Can We Learn From Football Managers?

There can be little argument that Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester united will be remembered as one in which he took a club that was still trading on past glories ("all fur coat and no knickers") and fashioned it a brand that was dominant on and off the pitch.

The famous Irish management writer and sometime philosopher Charles Handy said that that the search for a definitive 'solution' to leadership 'problem' as being another endless quest for the Holy Grail of organisational theory.

However, as Handy recognises, this has not stopped management academics from engaging in the quest to discover what works. There are literally many thousands of articles and reports and most management departments will have on-going work and staff working in the area to teach the next batch of eager students who wish to know what creates successful leaders and whether it is possible to learn particular skills or replicate certain behaviours.

Indeed, leadership is a topic that every student appears interested in if only because they can immediately think of examples of those who are considered successful. The names are usually not surprising and consist of a range of those who are, or at least in their lifetime were, engaged in politics and the military.

As I get older and, of course, students get relatively younger you do get some fascinating names which are borne of the age where there is intense and prurient interest in lives of the rich and famous. And the world of football in which it is possible to become both very rich and extremely famous.

So it should come as no surprise that one of the names of a successful contemporary leader is that of Sir Alex Ferguson, who until the end of the last football season was manager of Manchester United.

In the more than a quarter of a century that he was at Manchester United, Ferguson presided over the renaissance of a team that appeared to have had lost its way.

Given the current plight of Manchester United under his replacement David Moyes, it is worth remembering that when the derby between the two Manchester clubs happened, they were both in the bottom three of the old First Division with Newcastle sandwiched between them.

Ferguson took over a squad that consisted of, to be sure, very able players but not the global superstars and highly trained athletes that Moyes has inherited.

To be fair football appears a very different game from back in 1986.

It is worth noting that the total value of the Manchester United squad was just over £4million, the star undoubtedly being Bryan Robson who had cost £1.5million.

Given the current cost of the Manchester City squad, it is somewhat amazing that in the 1986-87 season it was valued at a quarter of a million which is now a weekly wage for the most highly prized stars.

It is easy to say that the rest is history but there can be little argument that Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester united will be remembered as one in which he took a club that was still trading on past glories ("all fur coat and no knickers") and fashioned it a brand that was dominant on and off the pitch.

It therefore probably no surprise that the latest edition of the respected business journal The Harvard Business Review saw him interviewed by Anita Elberse. As she explains, "Ferguson was far more than a coach [and] played a central role in the United organisation, managing not just the first team but the entire club."

Indeed, she also quotes the former Manchester United chief executive David Gill who believed he was their version of Apple's Steve' Jobs.

Interestingly, the research carried out by Elberse last year before he announced his intention to quit, has allowed her to propose eight leadership lessons that she contends summarise his approach and which, significantly 'can certainly be applied more broadly, to business and to life.':

1. Start with the Foundation

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

3. Set High Standards - and Hold Everyone to Them

4. Never, Ever Cede Control

5. Match the Message to the Moment

6. Prepare to Win

7. Rely on the Power of Observation

8. Never Stop Adapting

Clearly many leaders in business and beyond will read these with interest in the hope that they can emulate Ferguson's success. As always, the temptation is to believe if a 'formula' works elsewhere it can equally be applied in any context.

As alluded to earlier, football over the last 25 years since the inception of the Premier League and, of course, 'Sky money' had dramatically altered what many still refer to as 'the beautiful game'.

This is something that Ferguson recognises and explains that his ability to produce success was borne of a need to accept and manage change. His willingness to alter 'traditional' methods included the installation of vitamin D booths to compensate for lack of sunlight in Manchester, something that would have seemed ridiculous and probably have been rejected by someone with less belief in what was required.

Additionally, he expanded the so-called 'backroom staff' to include sports scientists who could give advice on all aspects of physiology. Apparently, he was the first coach to employ an optometrist and yoga instructor.

For those used to playing a 'man's game' this must have seemed senseless.

Ferguson explains that he believed he had to be willing to consider radical methods to improve:

"Most people with my kind of track record don't look to change. But I always felt I couldn't afford not to change. We had to be successful - there was no other option for me - and I would explore any means of improving. I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me."

What is utterly fascinating is that Ferguson is known for his tantrums and bust-ups with players including the infamous 'boot incident' with David Beckham.

His soubriquet 'the hair-dryer' was based on his willingness to shout his beliefs into the face on anyone he felt he needed to convince.

However, despite this, Ferguson was able to attract (and dispense with) the world's top players and shows that success breeds added success.

The difficulty for those who follow, like David Moyes at Manchester United, and those who have succeeded extremely successful leaders like Tim Cook who took over from Steve Jobs at Apple, is in maintaining success.

The reality seems to be that once the influence of the preceding leader is gone the 'magic' of the formula also disappears.

In carrying out my own research I came across various studies which showed that there is no fixed view. Indeed, for all of the research which proclaimed to have found the answer there are as many suggesting that much of what is presented as theory has no credibility.

Perhaps all that can be said is that what works in one instance may not work elsewhere.

I'd also contend that football is such a peculiar environment that it is hard to see how any useful lessons can be translated into other contexts.

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