What not to learn from Sir Alex and Manchester United

I have just watched a documentary titled, ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success’ — on the leadership lessons to be learnt from Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary former Manchester United manager. Now, as one should always declare one’s biases, it needs to be said that I am no Manchester United fan. In fact I really don’t like the club, as any self-respecting Liverpool fan ought and so I watched the documentary with a disturbing sense of admiration and no small amount of…well, let’s just say loathing, tinged with some undeniable jealousy. After all, we are talking about a club that has had overwhelming success under Sir Alex during his remarkable 26 years in charge; the club, that well and truly knocked Liverpool off that famous perch!

But let’s not dwell on this (painful) fact, let’s rather focus on the matter at hand: leadership.

The setting for the documentary was a Harvard led leadership class at London Business School with an off-site interview with Sir Alex spliced into the flow of the documentary. This in turn was supplemented by interviews with former players Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Ronaldo, with additional commentary from Lord Sugar (businessman and former Tottenham Hotspur Chairman), David Gill (former Manchester United Chairman) as well Jose Mourinhio (who at the time was still the Chelsea manager). It was insightful and well done and just a touch ironic given how things have worked out when it comes to the Manchester United managerial merry-go-round!

I cannot be sure what the motive or thinking was behind teeing up Sir Alex in a business school environment but with both Harvard and London Business School playing along, it has to be taken seriously.

Certainly at one level there are several valuable generic leadership insights and lessons to be gleaned from the Sir Alex and Manchester United story. A few of those uncovered by the documentary included:

  • How he connected with everyone in the club — everyone; he knew people by name and took a real interest in what they did within the context of the club
  • His ability to motivate different players — when to put an arm around the shoulders and when to use his notorious ‘hairdryer’ treatment (or kick the odd boot!)
  • His willingness to change before the need to change became obvious and in doing so was able to build multiple successive teams during his 26 years in charge
  • His unshakable belief that the ‘badge (on the front of the jersey) was bigger than the name (on the back of the jersey), in other words, nobody was bigger than the club.

There are several examples from which discerning leaders can learn and all the more eagerly if you love football and are intrigued by the Manchester United story.

But, to all this there is a real danger.

Besides the underlying suggestion is that business leaders can achieve success by imitating the Sir Alex way the part that concerns me most is what Sir Alex acknowledged was the cornerstone to his leadership philosophy: total control.

With many large organisations struggling to adapt in a world that is fast, connected, paradoxical and complex, advocating iron-clan control as a means of achieving success is problematic. It may work for sports teams and in select team environments where the goal is simple, straightforward and clear but ‘control’ as an over-arching leadership template in today’s business environment is something that many have been saying (for quite sometime now) is long dead. It may work for a limited period in a business environment, or be necessary in a crisis, but to be beating this drum, however inadvertently, is dangerous.

Control in the reach of today’s world, one infused with social media and the relentless flow of data and information, is impossible. Business leaders looking to control their environment are simply unable to do so — both internally and externally. Trying to do so is entirely the ‘wrong’ conversation to be having and finding new and appropriate ways to lead in this new context is where the leadership conversation has shifted and where it needs to be found. The deeper conversations and examples are about influence rather than control and about leading without authority in self-organising and inter-dependent systems. Bringing this to life and making it practical for those looking to lead — that is the responsibility and task of those privileged to be involved in leadership education and development.

Total control over all aspects of the ‘club’ cannot be the way into the future. Looking to popular culture to find what we need to move forward is dangerous at best and lazy at worse. The gatekeepers need to be held to a higher standard and need to be more watchful.

So, share your incredible story Sir Alex and by so doing inspire, humour and delight. I for one am certainly glad you have gone but somehow suspect that has not brought an end to my football troubles! Continue to share what worked for you and what didn’t but know that leadership is never just leadership…it is something that is always context specific and the simple reality is: a business is not a football club.

Business schools? Well do your job and if you insist on borrowing from the world of sport, then apply yourselves a little more thoroughly and a little more discerningly. You shape young (and some not so young) minds and sending out a case study on total control is, for me at least, a real problem.

Keith Coats is a futurist and leadership expert, with global experience as a presenter, facilitator and author. Keith shares his experience with audiences around the world, helping them understand the leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Find out more about his latest keynote presentation ‘Future-Fit Leadership — Understanding what it means to be an adaptive leader’ here.