Book Review: Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson

My Job was make to understand that the impossible was possible, that’s the difference between leadership and management.”

‘Leading’ was a series of anecdotes in management and leadership lessons by Sir Alex Ferguson as he looks back on his tenure as manager of Manchester United for 26 years, leaving the club as one of the most successful sporting clubs in the world. The book is an inspirational guide to leadership, arguably from the greatest football manager of all time. Sir Alex in 38 years of management had won 49 trophies and had helped Manchester United derail many empires, false pretenders and threats on and off the pitch by building a dynasty himself at Old Trafford.

‘Leading’ was structured around a few major and minor themes of Sir Alex’s key traits of leadership. Sir Alex gives his perspective on the key rules of leadership such as discipline, control, teamwork and motivation, but also new trends such as data, global markets and how to deal with failure.

The investor Sir Michael Moritz helped Sir Alex write the book and his own epilogue shows how the skills of leadership Sir Alex had shared in the book can help people run a business, teach individuals lead small businesses, families or even help people in their daily routines.

Sir Alex takes the reader into a journey of leadership with examples throughout the book. Sir Alex argues “preparation, perseverance, patience and consistency” are the pillars of leadership. Sir Alex demonstrates how a leader should becoming yourself, always listen and ease people, watch and observe as eyes and ears make a huge difference.

A key trait of a leader is recognise and channel hunger, however there needs to be discipline, a work rate, drive and conviction. However, in relation to planning, a successful leader needs to have an organisation, preparation in creating a pursuit of excellence and ensuring the attributes of homework are essential for details. For any successful leader, Sir Alex says how teamwork is crucial and having captains who set standards on behalf of him was always essential.

Sir Alex argues that leaders should always inspire and motivate people. He stresses that small gestures likes “well done” go a long way as motivation can make a difference to achieve success or experience failure. Sir Alex showed how he would deal different players based on their emotions, background and experience, as examples of how he handled Eric Cantona was different to how he would dealt with members of the class of 92.

Sir Alex believed criticism and washing dirty linen in public should be always behind closed doors, as organisations should keep problems within rather than make it public knowledge. Sir Alex once said “there is no harm in losing one’s temper” and he was known for the hairdryer treatment together with his network of spies who used to tell him if his players had misbehaved, yet he ensured that as manager he needed be respected rather than be loved, as a leader he did not need to be with the crowd and at parties, but at least be respected to carry out his instructions and attain success, yet also be respected as a confidante, father-figure and patriarch.

What I found interesting was Sir Alex’s take on the opposition, according to Moritz, great leaders don’t worry or fear about the opposition, rivals or things outside their control. If one is in control of one’s destiny it goes a long way than worrying about Arab princes, Russian Oligarchs or European mavericks.

Sir Alex also touches on failure saying “we are all haunted by failure, and we should only give up when we are dead.” He believes that when people have the fear of failure, it automatically gives the hunger to succeed. In 2012, when Sunderland fans celebrated by mocking Manchester united players who had lost the league out to Manchester City who won in a dramatic fashion, rather than wallow in self-pity. Sir Alex told his players “to learn from the defeat and humiliation and come back stronger.” The next season, the same players along with new signing Robin Van Persie were crowned as champions.

As a communications man myself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sir Alex’s views on owning the message. Readers were told that a successful leader doesn’t go around giving long speeches, but keeps things to the point, and even sometimes a silence is more powerful than a word. Also communications are essential as it involves in listening and watching as well. Sir Alex hated dealing with the media and one in way to be in control was to control the messaging, show confidence in body language and once in a while play some mind games. However, it is worth noting that a leader who has control is different to a leader who craves power.

Sir Alex throughout his period as manager would often say “no one person is bigger than Manchester United,” as after all graveyards are full of indispensable men. Sir Alex takes time to explain why losing one’s temper is of no practical use if it is done quite often, and carrying a grudge should not take precedence. Any time he dressed down a player, he made sure it was forgotten the next day. Also Sir Alex ensured control meaning he knew his staff, his players and anyone associated with Manchester United holding each member in high esteem.

All in all, ‘Leading’ shows how great leaders are those who embrace audacity, think the unthinkable, not shirking from responsibility and controversy. They hold a sense of the ultimate goal with only two or three major objectives while also having patience to persevere and plan. A perfect leader is unafraid to delegate and refrains from micro-management. During conversations the leader does not dominate, makes important decisions carefully, but refrains from embroiling oneself with minor irritations. For a great leader the achievements of the organisation are paramount than personal glory or fame. The leader watches and listens more, they’re tough but fair, they have no desire of being universally loved, just respected. Finally, when their time does come to leave they relinquish power with grace and don’t sour the life of their successor. All the above are traits according Sir Michael Moritz are the qualities that separate great leaders from leaders.

According to Moritz in the epilogue, after studying Sir Alex he narrowed down two key traits of a great leader: Obsession with their own job, as they can’t do anything else with their own lives until they achieve their objectives, and how to they deal with people, and understanding the characters of the people they lead. Moritz concluded how great leaders have the need to succeed running deep with adversity, never give up attitude, deal with setback reversals, create an atmosphere of “us against the world,” fear of failure, shut distractions, set realistic expectations while communicating to the point. The epilogue by Moritz is really long but you will find there are interesting comparison of Ferguson under Manchester United and Silicon Valley.

A must read for anyone who wants to study leadership, but something without theories and management courses.