Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality

Warren Bennis

In 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United after more than 25 years. He is regarded as one of the greatest football managers of all times.

When he was appointed in 1986 his sole aim was to rebuild Manchester United back to its former glory days. The club at that time was second from bottom in the English League. Over the next 25 years he watched over the development of the club into the £2.6 billion business that it was valued at in 2016.

Not only was he an astute coach, he was a superb business leader. Many of the leadership principles that he deployed at MU, are widely used in the business world today.

He saw discipline as one of the most important aspects of management. He acknowledged that he was often seen as a control freak, but he insisted, that when you are dealing with the massive egos of multimillionaire footballers, you had to tell them that nobody is greater than the manager or the club. There can be only one boss.

He expected everyone connected with the club to act as ambassadors and role models. He laid out the ground rules that applied to everyone. He expected a strong work ethic, total focus, respect and loyalty. He came down heavily on any member of staff that flouted these rules, though he was careful not to punish too harshly unless the circumstances were exceptional. It was only an insecure manager who resorted to extreme sanctions as a way of enforcing discipline.

Ferguson established a ‘family atmosphere’ in the club, a sense of inclusiveness. Everyone from the star player down to the kit washer were seen as valuable members of the organisation. Every time the club won a trophy it was brought into the canteen so that every member of staff could see what they had contributed towards. It was their trophy as much as the players.

Firing an employee was the most difficult task he ever had to face.

Ferguson believed that total honesty was the best way of dealing with the situation. Many of the players knew themselves that their performance level was slipping and he tried always to soften the blow by selling or lending them on to a smaller club or encouraged them to find new outlets for their skills such as coaching younger players.

Ferguson believed in a policy of long term planning. Not only did he plan the composition of his elite squad on a short term basis, but he constantly looked to the future and planned two to three years ahead, who and when to buy and sell. He was lucky that he was freed from the tyranny of immediate results by the Main Board of the club.

Ferguson was very open to any new ideas, a further example of his strategy for long term success. He realised that the club had to change and adapt as the game changed. Big investors came into the business expecting winning results time after time. So Ferguson persuaded his Board to invest heavily in ways that could give the players that extra edge over their opponents.

One of his greatest strengths was his ability to delegate. He expanded his back room staff and employed sports scientists to help the coaching team. Training methods were altered based on latest research and Ferguson had a state of the art medical centre built at the training ground.

Ferguson’s greatest management gift, certainly the one that kept him at the top for 25 years, had been his ability to evolve. His philosophy was always to win and no team he ever managed were good enough to satisfy him. So he was happy to cut and adapt when necessary.

He was knighted by the Queen in 1999 and finally retired at the end of the 2012/13 season in which Man United won the League Cup. A fitting end to an extraordinary career.