The Fergie Factor – Insights from a Proven Leader


All Liverpool fans lament the day Alex Ferguson crossed the border from Scotland into England, joining Manchester United in November 1986 after a successful time as manager of Aberdeen. That same year Liverpool won the double, the league championship and FA Cup. The 1970s and 1980s were Liverpool’s time, dominating English football and winning four European cups. Meanwhile, when Fergie took over at United the trophy starved club hadn’t won the league since 1967, under the revered Matt Busby. His greatest challenge? “Knocking Liverpool right off their f##king perch.”

While success was not instant, Fergie persevered, winning the FA Cup in 1990, the first of an enviable trophy haul during his tenure as the longest serving manager of Manchester United. He is arguably one of the greatest managers of the game and what he says is worth listening to. That is why, despite being a die-hard Liverpool fan dreaming of our return to the perch, I took the time to read the latest book from Alex Ferguson. Written with Michael Moritz, Chairman of Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm founded in Silicon Valley, “Leading” is more than just a football book.

Of course, football is what Alex Ferguson lived and breathed but in this book he explicitly examines the values and lessons that shaped his leadership style, the basis of his consistent success during a 38 year managerial career. As I have said before; for me, football is a microcosm of the economic system and life in general. After all, the macro economy is simply the aggregate output of the behaviour of many individuals as well as companies, governments and other organisations, all made up of individuals. The common thread we sometimes forget, is people.

There is no doubt that some of the values that made Ferguson the leader he was are innate, for example work ethic, drive and discipline. In Fergie’s case they were a product of his tough working class background in Glasgow. It will be rare to find any leader without these values, and they can’t really be taught. However, the book is also full of insights on leadership skills, which can be learned, and which Fergie himself learned from other managers in his early years. One particular favourite of mine is a lesson he picked up from his fellow Scotsman, the legendary Bill Shankly.

Overall, the book is well worth a read but I have included below eleven nuggets of wisdom that stood out for me.

  1. The importance of listening and watching over talking

“It always pays to listen to others. It’s like enrolling in a continuous, lifelong free education, with the added benefit that there are no examinations and you can always discard with useless comments.”

Ferguson tells the story of hiring Archie Knox as his assistant manager at Aberdeen. Shortly after arriving Knox asked why he had been hired since Fergie had “insisted on doing everything”. After reluctantly giving in to the advice from his assistant, Fergie ceded control of the training sessions and observed from the sidelines, something he recognises as “the most important decision I ever made about the way I managed and led.”

“If you are in the middle of training session with a whistle in your mouth, your entire focus is on the ball. When I stepped back and watched from the sidelines, my field of view was widened and I could absorb the whole session, as well as pick up on players’ moods, energy and habits.”

  1. Planning & preparation: eliminating as many surprises as possible

This is particularly relevant in the investment world, where animal spirits tend to run wild. A robust plan can guard against panic decisions in the heat of the moment.

“Part of the pursuit of excellence involves eliminating as many surprises as possible because life is full of the unexpected.”

 “All our planning and preparation was to help guard against a sudden rush of animal instincts in the heat of the moment. When a game goes in the wrong direction, it is so easy for players – especially the youngsters – to be controlled by their heart rather than their head. That’s the last thing you want.”

  1. Delegation: sharing responsibility means putting your full trust in people

Maybe it’s because it involves the legendary Bill Shankly of Liverpool, but for me this story sums up the difference between leadership and managing.

“There’s one final example of delegation that I always carried with me from early in my career. In 1972 I went down to Derby to watch a huge end of season game – Liverpool versus Derby Country. Jock Stein had set me up with the tickets and Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager, very kindly gave us a tour of the Derby boardroom. It was about 7.25pm and it was a 7.30pm kick-off and I asked Bill whether he should be with his players. He said, ‘Son, if I’ve got to be with my players for the deciding game of the season, there’s something wrong with them.’

When we walked into the tunnel all the players were lined up and one, Tommy Smith, the captain, was bouncing a ball on his head. Shankly said, ‘Tommy, take them home, son. You know what to do.’ That one sentence said everything about Shankly’s style of leadership.”

  1. Decision making: dealing with imperfect information

The challenge of decision making is arriving at a course of action in a timely manner, without all of the information you might like. As Fergie points out, that’s the nature of the world, no path is certain but you must have the confidence and the conviction to make the tough decisions. You will always have to contend with those people who, after the fact and with the assistance of hindsight, will tell you what you should have done!

“Some people can make decisions, others cannot. It just doesn’t work if you are congenitally hesitant and allow things to linger in a state of suspension….Men like Bobby Brown perhaps lacked the confidence to stick to decisions. Others are in a perpetual quest for the last morsel of information, using that as an excuse not to make a decision. When you are in the football world, and I suspect in almost every other setting, you have to make decisions with the information at your disposal, rather than what you wish you might have. I never had a problem reaching a decision based on imperfect information. That’s just the way the world works.”

“There is also the question of when you should make a decision. There are probably only two times to do so – too early and too late. If I was going to err on making one of those mistakes, I far preferred to make the decision earlier rather than later. That’s much easier to say than to do. After all, it wasn’t until I was approaching 50, in 1990, that I fully appreciated this.”

  1. Inspiring people: the power of ‘Well done’

The old school tactic of shouting to inspire people rarely works, albeit still practiced by some Neanderthal leaders. It is clear Fergie was exceptional when it came to inspiring players to reaching their full potential. Little things like saying ‘Well done’ can carry a lot of weight when motivating people, something Fergie was well aware of.

“You don’t get the best out of people by hitting them with an iron rod. You do so by gaining their respect, getting them accustomed to triumphs and convincing them that they are capable of improving their performance….It turns out that the two most powerful words in the English language are, ‘Well done’. Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 per cent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.”

  1. Developing talent: providing a pathway to success

“I always wanted to know about what the pipeline of players looked like for the team we would select three years in the future. It is so much easier to produce a consistent level of high performance when you nourish youngsters, help them develop and provide a pathway to success.”

  1. Planning for the future: never stop building

 “If you want to build a winning organisation, you have to be prepared to carry on building every day. You never stop building – if you do, you stagnate.”

  1. Using competitors to raise your standards

According to Fergie Liverpool’s trophy record was the “bogey I had to beat”. There is no doubt that this rivalry helped drive him, but Fergie set his own path for Manchester United.

“You cannot define yourself by your rivals and competitors or change your strategy and approach because of something they do….Nonetheless, you can learn from your competitors and, more importantly, you can raise your standards by trying to match or outperform them.”

  1. Fighting Complacency: never assume victory is in the bag

Complacency happens in all walks of life. In football, we see it transpire over 90 minutes. It never ends well when a team treats a game as a formality to just show up and win. With all organisations it can build over time, leading businesses constantly have to fight complacency to stay on top.

“Complacency is a disease, especially, for individuals and organisations that have enjoyed success……It’s like dry rot or woodworm because, once damp gets into the brickwork or insects into the wood, you don’t notice until it is too late. Whenever we played a game I never thought a victory was in the bag.”

  1. A winning manager: Just under a 60 per cent chance of winning

Given Fergie’s success one might expect his win percentage to be higher. However, it shows that a winning manager does not mean winning all your games. It is the same in the investment world, the only difference being that the magnitude of those wins and losses has much more significance. Interestingly, Brendan Rodgers’ win percentage at Liverpool was 52%,

“People might think of me as a ‘winning manager’, but just look at the statistics. At United I managed a total of 1,500 games, of which we lost 267, drew 338 and won 895. So overall you could conclude that every time I walked out on to a pitch I only had just under a 60 per cent chance of winning.”

  1. Retirement: ‘Don’t put your slippers on’

Fergie took this piece of advice to heart. It is probably something everybody nearing retirement should ponder. The brain is just like any other muscle, if you don’t use it, it will atrophy!

“Those are the yesterdays and I keep remembering a short piece of advice about tomorrow that I was given before I retired. It was, ‘Don’t put your slippers on.’ The line has stuck with me. It’s why I put my shoes on right after breakfast.”

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