The Greatest Manager?

Sir Alex Ferguson has retired as Manager of Manchester United and in the news coverage – from which you could be forgiven for thinking that he had died rather than retired – he has been hailed as the greatest football manager of all time.

He himself summed up the sport in which he achieved his successes -when his team had snatched two late goals to win a Champions’ League final – as “Football! Bloody Hell!”

Are there any lessons from his experiences for managers in business? Well yes, there are, in fact.

Of his personality, Simon Barnes of The Times said: “He won as a man of unappeasable furies, marrow-deep resentments, an infinite capacity for grudges, an engrained sense of persecution and a capacity to alchemise all this dark matter into a series of superlative (football) teams”. Not many management gurus would list those as being the ingredients for success in business but, in this tough economic climate, well, why not give them a try?

Simon Barnes continued with the theme of why Sir Alex won because he had “team after team after team never dependent on a single great player or a single generation, however golden”. Now that is a good message for business! Each team has had “the same sky-high professional standards, the same charging lust for the counter-attack, the same sneering contempt for every one else who ever played the game – at least in this country”. Again a useful approach in business, perhaps!

As a great reader of the biographies of great men (of sports coaches, military leaders and politicians), he once said (to an American journalist) that in reading When Pride Still Mattered, a biography of Vince Lombardi – an American Football player and coach – by David Maraniss), “I saw myself. Obsession. Commitment. Fanaticism. It was all there”.

Ferguson’s Manchester United redefined domestic football in England, in the words of Simon Barnes, ‘by means of their excellence, their attitude, their ruthlessness, their professionalism, their paranoia, their indomitability, their sense of themselves as people set apart from the common run.’ Again, all relevant in business too!

Of course, I know that HR heads would have kittens and Employment Tribunals would have field days if all managers in business behaved liked Sir Alex, but
his belief, his persistence, his spotting and nurturing of talent, his never letting individuals hold a team to ransom, his ability to get a team to never give up because victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat – yes a lot of what he practised can work at work!

And when we get to the end of this ghastly recession and we win at the very end we can all say ‘Business! Bloody Hell.’

Published on May 10, 2013 by Neil Thomas