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Leadership Lessons From Sir Alex Ferguson


Manchester United is in deep crisis. As the club and their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, battle with poor form, changing-room tensions, and a widespread dismay from their global support base, alarm bells are ringing around Old Trafford.

Manchester United’s problems

Sir Alex Ferguson (SAF) was the epitome of managerial success. Arriving at Aberdeen in the 1970s, then Manchester United in the 1980s, Ferguson found each side trapped in a quagmire of ill-discipline, rickety club infrastructure and underwhelming team performances.

Yet, over the next forty years of his glittering career, Ferguson instigated a devastatingly successful managerial formula: take leadership of a high-profile and yet struggling group of players, apply his unique approach to management and subsequently, inspire his reinvigorated squad to domestic and international footballing success, ad infinitum. 

In a strange twist of history, Ferguson’s former striker, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has also inherited a floundering Manchester United side. But with Sir Alex long gone, the club has desperately scrambled to return to its apex position, spending big and packing its team with international talent and powerful personalities, and most famously, Ferguson’s golden-boy, Cristiano Ronaldo.

And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this, Solskjaer’s men lack any sense of cohesion. Although they are extremely talented, Solskjaer’s superstars lack team chemistry and have damaged the historic managerial loyalty.

The senior management team also looks either too ‘soft’ or inexperienced to drive change. After a devastating 0-5 loss to their major rivals, Liverpool, Solskjaer’s neck is truly on the line. Ferguson’s words: ‘when it goes, it goes quickly’ may be a dire warning for his successor’s future.

Clearly, the issue is not with footballing talent, but rather managerial strategy. Although Solskjaer may claim to be a successor to Ferguson, it seems the student is sat in the shadow of his former teacher. We therefore ask which lessons can we learn from Sir Alex Ferguson’s management strategy, and how can they can be applied to Solskjaer’s predicament and moreover, to leaders outside of football?

What lessons can SAF teach us about leadership and management?

Lesson one: be ruthless, make superstars the solution not the problem

With a team of stars, Solskjaer seems have all the cards in his hands, but little idea of how to play them. Unlike his former student, Sir Alex is renowned for his ruthlessness.

Source: FourFourTwo

Ferguson’s shock decision to drop his No. 1, the Scottish superstar, Jim Leighton, the night before the 1990 FA Cup Final after a run of poor performances is a prime example. Another good example is the sacking of long-time captain, Roy Keane, in 2005 following his public criticism of the team’s performance.

Perhaps Solskjaer and other leaders alike need to take a leaf from Fergie’s book. To challenge a ‘soft’ perception, occupying a more menacing, ‘Fergusonian’ presence is very important for establishing respect and authority.

For Solskjaer, this can be in the form of dropping big personalities from the starting 11 when it’s required. From Pogba to Ronaldo, all players need to understand that their starting spot is not guaranteed and that their actions and behaviours on and off the pitch will impact a manager’s decision making.

This highlights a crucial lesson in football management, the corporate world and beyond: with big personality and big talent comes great potential, but also huge destructive potential. If Ole is to succeed, he needs his superstars behind him, not controlling him.

Lesson two: loyalty – earning it and keeping it

Ask your average football fan which characteristic they would associate with Sir Alex, and ‘loyalty’ would be a common answer. With continued emphasis on trusting and developing young talent, alongside a forensic man-management approach, this is hardly surprising.

One of Ferguson’s longest-serving players, Rio Ferdinand, commented that: “He knew everyone’s family…and he knew names. Those little things there; you’re running through brick walls for him. He had that extra something. He could deal with people. That’s a big thing for a manager”.

To keep his biggest names on board and to deepen his support base, Solskjaer and leaders globally must look to this approach. Maintaining his already-impressive support of youth players, SAF’s trusting of his hard-working youngsters was evident in his rewards, as game time was the carrot on the end of the stick.

Attempting to emulate Ferguson’s deeply personal man-management style, is a leadership approach which Solskjaer, and managers everywhere, should take heed of.

Lesson three: a state-of-the-art leader needs a state-of-the-art leadership team

No leader throughout history can truly claim to have achieved success alone, and crucial to managerial success is cultivating a strong senior leadership team.

Ferguson’s 27-year reign at Old Trafford was bolstered by the expertise of his assistants, first-team coaches and backroom staff. Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz, René Meulensteen and Mike Phelan, as only some of the longest-serving assistants to Sir Alex, accumulated between them over 10,000 days of experience at United.

Source: FourFourTwo

Meanwhile, Solskjaer’s hand-picked leadership team lacks the spine of Ferguson’s. Rather, his backroom staff appear confused in their roles and lacking in real managerial experience.

Alex Ferguson’s former right-hand man, Mike Phelan, offers some continuity with previous success, but plays no role on the training ground. The fresh-faced triumvirate of Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Darren Fletcher – with an average age of 37 – lack the conviction and managerial experience of United’s leaders in years gone by, with a clear effect on team performances.

For managers to lead effectively, a clear designation of the senior staff’s responsibilities is vital. Youth and a variety of voices are valuable assets, but for leaders to succeed they need to surround themselves with a support network that is not only capable, but also seasoned.   

There are no ‘silver bullets’, but there are steps forward

These three lessons are obviously not silver bullets or easy solutions which will guarantee Manchester United inevitable success, nor will they guarantee success in the business world. Nevertheless, they are steps forward.

They are steps which both Solskjaer and other leaders in the world and other walks of life should willingly embrace if they want to begin making impactful change.

For no leader wants to end up in a failing situation. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fails to act, he looks destined to remain not only in the shadows of his predecessor, but in the ever-growing graveyard of former Manchester United managers.

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