A Guide to Leadership from Sir Alex Ferguson – Part 3. Renowned football manager Sir Alex Ferguson recently released his newest book Leading, co-written with venture capitalist Michael Moritz, in which he discusses his life and his illustrious management career spanning nearly four decades. After winning a record 49 trophies, most of which he received during the 26 years he spent transforming Manchester United into a worldwide phenomenon, Ferguson examines his triumphs, missteps, and the lessons he learned that shaped him into a successful coach and highly respected leader.
A Guide to Leadership from Sir Alex Ferguson – Part 3
We conclude Part 3 of our three-part series with four final values on leadership from the great Sir Alex Ferguson, and discover how you can apply his valuable insights to your own management approach and become a stronger, more successful leader for your team.
Leading not managing
Leaders need to be decisive, able to sometimes make important decisions without knowing all of the information. Timing is crucial in the decision-making process – too early and you risk impulsivity, too late and you may miss the window of opportunity. Keep calm and don’t let pressure from others force your hand. Confident leaders are successful leaders, and this confidence needs to flow straight from the top down. The mark of good leadership, and what distinguishes it from management, is the ability to make people believe in themselves. Leaders inspire their teams to make the impossible happen, get them to believe in something greater than themselves.
Ferguson stresses the importance of maintaining control of your team. Known for his famous temper, he eventually learned that to be a good leader you must keep it in check, using it only when necessary. Don’t rule by intimidation – if you scare people into line, you hold onto your power but alienate your team. Yet don’t let anyone undermine your authority; be clear that no one is indispensable. Part of maintaining control also means delegating tasks to someone you trust so that you are able to focus on the things that really need your attention. Delegation can be difficult if your impulse is to take care of everything yourself to ensure it’s done properly, but you can’t do everything yourself – nor should you. You don’t need to be involved in every detail; lay out your expectations and let them do what needs to get done. Trust them to do the job you’ve given them.
“Control and delegation are two sides of the same coin. Nobody ever explained to me that working with, and through others is by far the most effective way to do things – assuming of course they understand what you want and are keen to follow. I gradually began to understand that this is the difference between management and leadership.”
– Alex Ferguson, Leading
Always keep your eyes and ears open for new, innovative ideas that will better your team and benefit your business – ideas that are backed up by evidence and common sense. Don’t fear the future; in order for your business to grow and develop, adaptation is necessary. The world is constantly changing, and those who change with it end up being the most successful. Ferguson was constantly evolving his methods and incorporating new ideas into his regimen as the game changed. Unafraid to innovate to improve his team, he installed sunbeds to infuse players unused to Manchester’s low sunlight with vitamin D, hired a staff optometrist, and used GPS vests during training for post-session analysis. However, Ferguson advises to be careful relying too much on data – it can be a helpful tool, but there may be other factors at play that aren’t accounted for in the measurements. The best information comes from your own senses.
A good piece of advice from Ferguson regarding the opposition is to “tell them nothing”. Keep your objectives and next steps close to your vest – don’t blab your important secrets to anyone, whether they’re your competition or your allies. You don’t want to gift your competitors with anything they can hold over you or utilise to gain an advantage.
The relevance of others
Rivalries can be a useful tool: they can motivate people to work harder and inspire them to be passionate about winning and coming out on top. Just be careful that a simple rivalry doesn’t cross the line into darker territory and transform into hatred and true animosity. Don’t let rivalries change who you are or how you handle situations, or let them distract you from your focus. Instead, use them as a positive tool to see how you can enhance and improve yourself and your team. Looking to your competition will motivate your team to keep raising the bar on performance.
But when you’re watching others, keep your thinking cap on and evaluate the decisions they’re making before you jump in headlong after them into whatever new thing they’re trying. Be sceptical of their choices. You don’t always have to copy what they do – sometimes people make bad decisions. It’s up to you to be able to recognize them and avoid making similar mistakes.
“I cannot think of a manager – even in the midst of our fiercest battles – with whom I would refuse to dine. I just tried to keep my thoughts to myself because the secret is not to put your own weaknesses on display. The best way to get even is to make sure you beat them.”
– Alex Ferguson, Leading
When arriving at a new place with a new position of leadership, we often want to get right down to business, proving ourselves worthy of our new role by making fast decisions and big changes. Those counting on us are looking for quick results, and we are under immense pressure to deliver. But this is a sure-fire way to make mistakes. Don’t let your insecurity make you overly question yourself or be too hasty. Don’t rush to implement changes, take some time so that you don’t overwhelm or frustrate your staff, making them hesitant to trust you and wondering about your overall plan. Too many changes at once will be distracting and difficult to adjust to, resulting in decreased performance. Provide reassurance; let your staff know you aren’t going to replace them if they give you results. Avoid initiating conflicts so you don’t start off on a bad note. You want your staff to feel certain about you and confident in their position on your team.
When departing a leadership role, it’s important to have a smooth transition for your team. You want to find someone who will help facilitate this process and who has the future of your team at heart. Ferguson prefers to promote from within; these candidates have more hands on experience and a greater understanding of what it takes to be a player. When the time comes, step back and hand the reins over to your successor – give them the chance to do their job and lead their team into the next phase of their success.
“Leaders who are new to an organisation are often far too eager to stamp their imprint on everything.”
– Alex Ferguson, Leading
Over his lengthy career, Sir Alex Ferguson worked tirelessly to build strong, unified teams, leading his players to multiple victories and immense commercial success while also providing inspiration to generations of people around the world. Ferguson has created a lasting legacy, not only as the greatest football manager of all time, but as an incomparable leader. In this three-part series, we have examined his ultimate leadership principles and discovered how you can apply them to your business. Now it’s your turn to create your own leadership legacy. Utilise the insightful philosophies of Sir Alex Ferguson and transform your management style to build a winning team, drive results, and achieve lasting success.
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