3 min read

It’s 1986. Imagine becoming a manager of a football club, which despite having some loyal audience, was in danger of reaching a plateau. 1986 was a year of “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, and if love is anything to go by, you became famous for being obsessively in love with the beautiful game of football that led you to leadership.

Two decades later, you are one of the most successful football coaches and a former manager of Manchester United. A leader who turned the business around and will be remembered for helping to create a staggering £ 2.46bn (KPMG 2019) of the club’s enterprise value thanks to live events, retail, merchandising, apparel, product licensing and other revenue streams. How did you manage to do that???

This question is answered in the book titled “Leading” by Sir Alex Ferguson, the gamechanger in this story. Despite his phenomenal commercial legacy, Ferguson modestly shies away from big words and asserts that he’s not a management expert nor is he a business guru. Instead, he wants to reassure that everyone can be a leader as he offers an easily digestible summary of his winning leadership formula that secured his place at the top for so long.

His nuggets of wisdom are, dare I say obvious, yet potent and not always easy to implement. It’s refreshing to see a leader who doesn’t overcomplicate the leadership science and generously shares his tips that worked on/with the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and others. Hopefully, the following highly simplified read proves handy in your professional toolbox, regardless of your industry and experience:

1. Work Ethics

Nothing beats work ethics in pursuit of winning. Consider what principles, values and behaviours will keep you and your organisation at its peak. Make them known to everybody. Lead by example. Be consistent. Never give up. Ferguson was known for his impeccable work ethics and arriving on the pitch before the milkman, and he recalls how Beckham would turn up in the evening to continue training when most of the other players stuck to the compulsory morning and afternoon sessions only.

2. Listening Skills

Don’t be a manager who talks under water (the only one that does the talking/ talking over people). Skilful listening is an influencing skill; listening enables others to talk. The more they talk, the more relevant insights they reveal so you can focus on responding to what’s impactful to everyone, not indulgent to you. It is listening, not the talking or giving unsolicited advice, that builds trust and relationships.

3. Watching & Observing

Zoom in on details but avoid micromanaging as it eclipses the bigger picture. Pause and observe what goes on around you. If you’re in the thick of things, it’s hard to size up others and measure the situations. Step back, do nothing, see what your eyes tell you. Ferguson reflects that some of his best decisions and the choice of players were the results of careful watching.

4. Discipline and determination

Hard work is talent too, says Ferguson, and he adds that he chooses discipline over talent if it shows no grit or desire. Team players who don’t take their job seriously undermine collective success. Wild cards are the antithesis of collaboration. His advice: be explicit what your expectations are, set clear boundaries and accountability code. Discipline keeps anarchy at bay.

5. Emotional Intelligence

Hunger for success is not enough. You need to be emotionally and mentally strong. Body and mind are part of one system; one supports another in managing anxiety, fear or failure. Ronaldo had a tough childhood, but he knew that playing a victim or a blame game was a dead-end in pursuit of excellence. This acted as a positive springboard for his on-and-off pitch behaviour, growth mindset and self-care.

6. Beliefs

Your beliefs influence your feelings, decisions and, therefore, your destiny. Without a conviction, you’re the imposter in your own biography. Goals must be supported by a corresponding belief igniting powerful neurology to succeed. You have to disempower negative feelings and opinions about yourself or your circumstances if you want to reach your full potential. Tip: Observe your behaviour. What belief does it represent?

7. Team composition

Team profile is key to high performance. For Man United, it meant diversity of players’ age, skills and their playing styles. Ferguson points out that old-timers must show adequate patience for newcomers. Another thing to consider: big egos with a desire to win can be good for the team. However, ensure that they operate in the spirit of respect for others and adhere to team’s values, otherwise they will create tension and resentment for others due to the imbalance between the individual glory with team triumphs.

8. Want – Need – Get

Ferguson is a goal-focused man in both meanings of the word. He made it clear what he wanted, what he needed and what it meant to get there. He says there is no room for criticism on the training ground but regular feedback and a simple “Well done” praise are the two best words ever invented in sport. Tip from Sir Alex: Never discuss individual team member’s mistakes in public. In one unusual such case, Ferguson had openly criticised Rio Ferdinand, a behaviour he later regretted and for which he apologised.

9. Organisational leadership

As a leader, you have the responsibility to build a sustainable business. Exceptional teams won’t thrive in an unexceptional business for long. Ferguson’s first key mission in 1986 was to assess and to build a great club. He believed that this was foundational for acquiring a great team.


Reflecting on Sir Alex Ferguson’s particular leadership style, rather than appraising him as a person or examining this school of leadership, it is evident that his strong character and charisma helped him in becoming a successful leader, in managing change and navigating complex stakeholder relationships.

Secondly, clarity aids success, ambiguity feeds failure. Ferguson’s simple and precise communication heightened everyone’s accountability, left no room for guessing games or wasting anybody’s time or energy.

In addition, with football capable of generating incredible emotions, Sir Alex Ferguson believed that he had to be a present leader for a number of reasons: 1) to know what is going on between team players as group dynamic can be tricky in environments that invite competition and passion in equal measures, 2) to bear witness of their work, to get the best out of the players and to share evidence-based feedback.

Finally, Ferguson comes clean. He equates his success with hard work, keeping his eyes on the ball (pun intended) and his insatiable hunger to win.

If I had to pinpoint 3 factors that contributed to my success as a leader in the past, it would be: 1) Love for my craft, 2) Building an awesome team, 3) Big picture thinking /There is always something to learn

What are your top 3 tips for becoming a great leader?