Sir Alex Ferguson and his winning ways

I just watched a BBC documentary about Sir Alex. It was based around a London Business School event featuring Sir Alex and a Harvard Business School professor who has studied his leadership style.

Sir Alex, for those of you not keen on football (the logically named sport where you primarily use your feet and not your hands to advance the ball), is the winning-est coach of all time. And as much as I like Phil Jackson and his amazing Bulls/Lakers dynasties, it’s not even a comparison. Sir Alex stands head and shoulders above all other professional sport coaches in terms of his impact on a club, a city, a game, players, and the winning record of his Manchester United where he coached for 27 years! He is quite simply, a legend.

There were two dominant threads running through the documentary.

1) His staunch belief in the coach as someone that always makes it about behavior, not the person. Yes, sharp rebukes were handed out, but they were always followed by an increase in support and instantly moving on. No grudges where ever held. Being an employee of a boss like this is very liberating because you learn that it’s about doing your best and everything else is secondary. You also learn that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you work hard and fast to correct them. Sir Alex sums up this principle nicely in the documentary: “When we played below our potential I would voice my annoyance in the locker room after the match — even if we’d won the game.”

2) His candor was never in doubt by anyone. He was open with his opinions about each player’s performance. In other words, his “performance review” was a constant feedback loop where coach and player constantly interacted about performance, good and bad. Leaders who aren’t candid on a frequent basis about their employees’ performance need help to improve.

Lack of candor in leaders is nearly always born from the psychological need to be liked, which we all have. Jony Ive (Apple’s design guru) tells a brilliant story about this 2:15 minutes in at:

Jony told Steve Jobs that he’d been too hard on his team about something. Jobs replied: “Jony, I’m surprised, I thought you really held the work up as the most important, not how you believe you are perceived by other people”. Jony Ive became “cross” because he realized Jobs had been exactly right in his assessment of Jony’s real motivation for going easier on his team.

One final leadership principle to comment on in this post: Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you can teach it. Sir Alex was an average professional football player, but ended up the best coach of all time. I’m sure he had some player detractors who slagged him off for his mediocre record as a player. Similarly, Phil Jackson was never a star player. At the other end of the logic trail — Michael Jordan has been a failure as a club manager and owner.

The greatest teacher that ever lived he is.

Doing and teaching are two VERY different skills. I can’t think of many people who can do both at a very high level. In a business organization, teaching and coaching are critical to success in most executive roles so be sure to evaluate executives’ ability to coach and teach as a way to improve performance, rather than the executive doing all the heavy lifting herself.