12 May 2013

I have always been fascinated by people with great leadership qualities. I have found that the best way to learn is to find the people who are at the top of their game and study their traits and emulate their successful characteristics.

I have been privileged to get to know some giants in many industries but one person I have never had the fortune to sit down with and learn from is Sir Alex Ferguson.

It’s safe to say, Sir Alex Ferguson is a great football manager and whether you are a fan of Manchester United or not, his track record speaks for itself and places him, arguably, as the greatest manger that’s ever lived. But I think that title only covers part of his qualities.

Sir Alex Ferguson is essentially a great leader. It just so happens that he chose football, or football chose him. Looking at his personality traits, I’d argue that his skills are transferable. He’s what I’d describe as a classic leader.

When you get these rare people, wherever they go, people want to follow them. Whatever walk of life, whatever industry, people gravitate towards them. Why is this? And why aren’t we producing more of these characters?

The simple truth is that great leaders have a combination of traits and if any of them are missing, they are found wanting and fall short. The biggest and rarest of the traits in this particular combination is the desire to put other people before oneself. Great leaders are conductors; they stand away from the orchestra and although they share in the music, the lead violinists and solo musicians claim the limelight.

Ferguson is one of these people. Happiest watching from the sidelines, he readily gives the credit to all the people he works with, long before he’d accept praise himself.

Why people and players gravitate to him is the interesting point and the one that holds the key to success and failure.

Great leaders expect more; they know no limits, they are unsettled, they can never rest and they transfer these attributes and standards to everyone around them. It sounds easy doesn’t it? But be warned, if you attempt to emulate a master at work without combining magnanimous traits, you will quickly find yourself unpopular and at the hands of a mutiny. There is a fine line between the pain before success and the potential downfall of a team, whether in sport or business. Real talent can be difficult to manage and I know so many business leaders who push hard but don’t have the compassion needed to balance the pain with a hug when it’s needed. Ultimately, they fail to reach their full potential and whilst they may do quite well, they never know just how well they could have done if they’d just changed a few small things.

Hearing Ferguson talk is a lesson in itself. Addressing the crowd and media after his last match at Old Trafford as manager, Ferguson immediately starts by saying “thank you,” and then congratulates the team. He doesn’t talk about himself, he talks of the memories and the future, the last minute goals, and he highlights the defeats too, stating that “they are all part of this great football club of ours.”

This is an inclusive attitude, one of sharing. Jim Collins, Stamford professor and author of “Good to Great”, describes a great leader as someone who takes full responsibility for whatever goes wrong, but when things go well, they share out the success and cite everyone else for the victory. These may sound like normal traits but actually, in the cold light of day, most people pass on the blame immediately and when great stuff happens they are quick to make people believe that they were the cause of it. It’s the natural reaction.

So, how do you manage standards when you set them at the very limits of possibility?

When hearing Manchester United players, past and present, talk about Ferguson, you quickly learn that he is a tough task master. Someone who is not afraid to speak his mind. Someone who will hold everyone around him accountable.

Praise and recognition for hard work is essential but when standards aren’t met, Ferguson’s reputation preceded him. Nicknamed the hairdryer, he wasn’t apologetic for his volatility. In fact, he went as far as saying “there’s nothing wrong with losing your temper, sometimes it’s premeditated, you have to use all the tools you have.”

The real difference in his repeated success lies a lot deeper though, and whilst everyone else in the Premiership was playing football, Ferguson had his sights on a much bigger picture. He goes on to describe:

“A football club is the infrastructure, your staff, your youth team, your school kids coming through, the reserve team, staff who can cope with that, coaches. It’s not just about the the football team. And that’s what I believe in.”

This attitude separates Ferguson from mere mortal to legend because he is building for the future long after his term. Building a legacy, all the time understanding the sheer size of his responsibilities, all the time ensuring his players and everyone involved, fans alike, understood the magnitude of their responsibility.

It’s a masterclass in leadership, a humbling experience, and I am proud to have witnessed this maestro at work in my lifetime.

If you are wanting to build a lasting business, you need to inspire people, week in week out. It’s not easy and getting this balance is the hardest part of building a business. You may even be lucky and share all the traits of a great leader but they can never be in the same proportion to someone else’s and so you never get the same leader twice. They are all wonderful personalities; the more extreme ones do actually go on to change the world.

Whatever Ferguson’s secrets, whatever his style, his contribution to Manchester as a place is unprecedented.

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