Manchester United: Leadership Lessons from the Sporting World

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 11:43

Guest post by Professor Mark Farrell

Imagine this:

You find yourself in a new management position. The organisation you work for is world famous. However, when you commence employment, you discover that the staff you have at your disposal are not up to the task, they have a drinking culture and are living off their past reputation.

Add to that ‘shareholders’ who are hungry for success and expect immediate results. In fact, your performance will be judged not annually, nor quarterly, but on a weekly basis.

That was the situation Alex Ferguson, ex-manager of Manchester United faced on his first day on the job, November 6, 1986. 27 years later Sir Alex Ferguson retired from football, the longest serving and the most successful manager in the game’s history of, after winning a total of 28 trophies.

But it’s only a game, I hear you say!

This is true, but it is also a multi-billion dollar industry in which the players are paid millions of dollars a year, in which recently, Gareth Bale was transferred from Tottenham Hotspur in the UK to Real Madrid for around $130 million, and where football managers last for around 1.4 years before they are fired.

The Harvard Business School recently published a case study, Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United, which outlines a number of leadership lessons. These lessons are readily transferrable and useful for managers and leaders in any industry. They include the following:

1. Clarify your expectations from the beginning, and be prepared to let go of staff who are not committed to the new direction. Much to the surprise of the fans, Sir Alex Ferguson (SAF) quickly released several ‘star players’ who were living on their past reputation and who were not committed to the new approaches to training and fitness.

2. Create an atmosphere where everyone feels they have a role to play in helping you improve the performance of the organisation. SAF made efforts to create an organisation where everyone, from the superstar players through to the kit washer felt that they had something to contribute.

3. Be prepared to take some risks in hiring staff – there is no such thing as a perfect employee. SAF took a gamble with a Frenchman named Eric Cantona who had a reputation for being difficult to handle. However with the right management approach, SAF got the best out of Cantona, made him the team captain, and he was instrumental in helping SAF win the title for United in 1993 for the first time since 1967.

4. Praise in public, and criticise in private. Unlike other managers, SAF never once criticised his players in public, although he was well known for the ‘hairdryer’ treatment behind closed doors. This earned him the respect of his players who knew that he would always support them.

5. Be prepared to adapt with the times. Despite having little in the way of a formal education and no recognised management qualifications, SAF was quick to embrace technology and sport science if it could help improve performance.

It is doubtful that there will ever be a football manager as successful as Sir Alex Ferguson. His success is a lesson for all of us that good managers can make a huge difference.

Finally, as I write this piece, Sir Alex Ferguson’s replacement at Manchester United, David Moyes, is currently enjoying United’s worst start to a season.

Who would be a manager?

Professor Mark Farrell is Head of the Graduate School of Business and Law at RMIT University.