Sir Alex Ferguson – one of the greatest managers in the history of sports – spent 26 years with Manchester United and won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, and two UEFA Champions League titles. To put it into context, he alone won more Premier League/Division 1 titles in 26 years with Manchester United than any other club has won since the league was established in 1888, bar Liverpool Football Club.
When he took over this team in 1986 it had not won the league title in almost 20 years and was languishing in mid-table. He developed four different teams in four different eras, all of which won the English Premier League. He was constantly evolving and building a new team and was not afraid to made unpopular decisions.
What’s the secret to his longevity? What did he do that others didn’t or couldn’t. What can we learn from him about leading teams, managing people and getting the best out of them? Below are five lessons from the career of Alex Ferguson.
1. Discipline & Work Ethic
Alex Ferguson had incredible discipline & work ethic. Even after he had become the most decorated manager in the world he was the first to the training ground, arriving at 7am every single day. He admitted to skipping work for the first time ever a week before retiring from football at the age of 71. That too was the day after Manchester United's parade for winning his 13th & final English league title.
He once said, "If I had to pick between work ethic or talent as the most potent fuel, it would be the former."
When asked about rumours regarding Cristiano Ronaldo's personal life, he responded by saying that the player is the first into training and the last to leave, so there is no concern about his lifestyle.
Lesson: There is no excuse for not being 100% committed and putting in maximum effort. Leaders need to lead from the front & show their teams that they are the most committed and hardest working.
2. Create a safe work environment & defend your team at all costs
'Juan Veron is a f******* great player, and you lot are f****** idiots'.
This is how Ferguson responded in a press conference to a question regarding the mediocre performances of Juan Sebastien Veron, singed in the summer of 2001 for a then British record GBP 28 million.
After games, in press conferences, Ferguson would defend even the most horrifying performance from his players. He would take the blame himself or deflect it to referees, opponents, anyone but his players when things went wrong. However, in the dressing room, he would then roll out his infamous hairdryer treatment, where he would tear his players to shreds if they didn’t perform up to his expectations. This is why players were willing to go the extra mile for him.
Lesson: Most managers are always looking to find scapegoats when things are not going according to plan. The blame culture creates a negative environment. People stop working for you and it becomes “every man for himself”. The workplace needs to be a safe space, where employees are not constantly looking over their shoulder, worried that they are on their own & every decision can lead to them being in trouble. Simon Sinek talks about this in detail in his book & talks on “Why Leaders Eat Last”.
3. Improve from a position of strength
The English Premier league is probably the most competitive league in the world. In the last 10 years no team has won consecutive titles. In fact, since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, Chelsea is the only club, apart from Manchester United, to have won consecutive titles (04-05 & 05-06). Manchester United – under Ferguson - won consecutive titles on four different occasions, twice two in a row and twice three in a row. This is very difficult in elite professional team sports because competition is extremely tough and margins are small. If the intensity and work ethic goes down a couple of percentage points, you start losing the 50-50 tackles, passing are not inch perfect and you give away the initiative.
On the day after a title was won, Ferguson would start talking about next season, the challenges, the goals and what they had to do to achieve them. He was always looking to the future. He would improve his squad, he would ensure he bought another player or two to challenge the incumbents and ensure no one rests on their laurels.
This ethos was owned by his team as well. On the night Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999 to become the first and only treble winners in English football (winners of the English League, FA Cup & Champions League), Dwight Yorke said he had achieved everything he dreamed of in football. The captain, Roy Keane, told him that in that case he could leave because United needs players with the hunger to win.
Lesson: Never rest on your achievements and constantly challenge yourself to improve and grow, otherwise the competition will eat you up.
4. You can’t win anything with kids’. Believe in your abilities & don’t be afraid of failure
Ferguson shared a trait common in all elite sports personalities: extreme self belief. He knew his strengths as a manager and backed himself to the hilt.
For the 1995/1996 season Ferguson let go a few of the senior members of the squad and brought in a number of kids from the youth system into the first team. United promptly lost a few games. Alan Hansen famously said on Match of the Day in August 1995 that Manchester United can’t win anything with kids. United won that season and those players – Gary Neville (aged 20), Paul Scholes (20), Ryan Giggs (21), Phil Neville (18), Nicky Butt (20) & David Beckham (20) – went on to make United the most successful club in the world and won six of the next eight titles, including a double and a treble.
Lesson: Believe in your abilities, take calculated risks and don't be afraid of failure.
5. However, know when the tide is changing and adjust for it
The only other manager to have achieved Ferguson’s longevity is Arsene Wenger (22 years at Arsenal; 1996 - 2018). He brought in professionalism, proper nutrition and continental training regimes that revolutionised English football. In his first eight years at the club (1996-2004) Arsenal won three league titles and two FA Cups (including two doubles), had the “Invincibles” season in 2004 – the only English team ever to go through a season unbeaten – and challenged United for the crown of the best team in England.
However while Ferguson, evolved Arsene never changed. He remained rooted to ideas that became old and outdated. He didn't win a league after 2004. In fact, the only major trophy Arsenal has won in the ensuing 14 years are five FA cups, which in itself is a good achievement but nothing compared to what that team should have achieved. Others took over & the pioneer was left behind.
Ferguson knew when things were not working & had to be changed. He had four different Manchester United teams, of four different generations, that all won multiple English league titles, because he knew how to keep on changing his man management style & to keep on evolving his tactics in order to stay ahead of the competition.
In the summer of 2002, Ferguson appointed the Portuguese Carlos Queroz as assistant coach to bring a European element to United’s game, even though it had own the Champions League only three years previously and had won three of the last four Premier League titles. Ferguson realised that he had to evolve his tactics for European games. He bought Juan Veron, a player completely unsuited to United’s favoured 442 formation and style of play. He was willing to disturb what was one of the best midfield combinations in the world (Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs) if it meant European glory and staying ahead of the competition.
Over the next 10 years, United drastically changed a style of play that had already brought so much glory and reached three Champions League finals in four years, winning once and losing twice to Barcelona.
Lesson: Have the humility to accept that a particular strategy or plan is not working and needs to be changed. This does not mean that you are compromising on your goals & principles but that you are compromising for them.