IT is the great imponderable at the end of yet another traumatic week at Leeds United – just how long could the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, the winning-most manager in British football history, survive at Elland Road under the impulsive, irrational and impatient Massimo Cellino?
Even if the now retired Sir Alex could be tempted to give up the Rioja and racehorses to manage the one-time rivals to his Manchester United, it simply would not happen because of the due diligence he always undertook to assess the character of his potential employers. Under no circumstances would he fall for the overtures of a maverick Italian with a superstitious dislike of the colour purple and who is now banned from the Football League because of an unpaid VAT bill on an imported Range Rover.
This is just one of the many lessons for football, politics and business in his new book, Leading, which provides a revealing insight into the modus operandi of a managerial genius who was given the time to transform a sleeping giant – Manchester United – from mid-table mediocrity into a global institution over 27 years of unrivalled dominance. Contrast this with the revolving door at Leeds United, another club living in the shadow of past glories, where the verbose Steve Evans is now the sixth manager in 18 months.
Of course, managing a football club is very different to the leadership responsibilities of those presidents and prime ministers taking life and death decisions, the reassuring continuity offered by the Queen through her glorious reign, the entrepreneur trying to defy the economic odds or those ego-maniacs on The Apprentice.
Yet, whether you are David Cameron, Lord Sugar or Massimo Cellino, Sir Alex’s disciplinarian approach does offer a template for success – whether it be in sport or wider society – because of his unflinching belief that “in the long run principles are just more important than expediency” and “once you bid farewell to discipline you say goodbye to success and set the stage for anarchy”. It’s not the only nugget that has wider resonance if today’s younger generations are to become the world-beaters of tomorrow:
Teachers: Inspired by his primary school teacher Elizabeth Thomson, who encouraged the young Ferguson to take school work seriously for a career in which he tried “to coax the best out of young people”, he says “the best teachers are the unsung heroes of any society”. Take note, David Cameron, as classroom stress levels escalate still further.
Young talent: Having been told, erroneously, by television pundit Alan Hansen that “you can’t win anything with kids”, Sir Alex begs to differ: “Youngsters can inject a fantastic spirit in an organisation and a youngster never forgets the person or organisation that gave him his first big chance. He will repay it with a loyalty that lasts a lifetime.” Common sense – especially if those concerned are steeped in their local community.
Words of wisdom: Sir Alex might have ended most interviews with ‘well done’ but he regards these words as the two most powerful in the English language. Why? “I cannot think of any manager who succeeded for any length of time by presiding over a reign of terror... much of leadership is about extracting that extra five per cent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.” Any views Signore Cellino?
Interview technique: The retired manager reveals that he put candidates at their ease “by offering them a cup of tea. I just wanted them to relax enough so that I could get the measure of who they were really were”. Significantly, those who sat up properly, while leaning forward slightly, had a head-start because it showed eagerness. If applicants asked meaningful questions in an interview, that was another tick in Sir Alex’s book. Similarly, if a decision is taken to fire an individual, he says “nothing beats honesty”.
Decision-taking: One of the first people to fall foul of the Ferguson regime at Old Trafford was chief scout Tony Collins who, ironically, had held the same position at Leeds under Don Revie. According to Sir Alex, he was a nice person who couldn’t give an opinion about a player. “I could never deal with people who were wishy-washy or whose judgement rested on the opinion of the last person they had talked to. They just made my life harder,” he says. I can think of many in senior public and private sector positions who would fail this test.
Such insights are all the more informative and impactful because there was no handbook – until now – on how to be a successful football manager. This is a largely self-taught man who prepared himself for his public speaking responsibilities by talking to smaller audiences to gain confidence: “If someone has belief, they can find the words to express it.”
He had to teach himself the art of delegation – “I was the puppet master, not the control freak” – and learn the difference between management and leadership. He also appreciated his non-playing staff – he made it his business to know their names – and insisted that every employee of the club used the same canteen at lunch. If a trainee player was sitting on their own, Sir Alex would sit with them so they felt part of the club rather than being intimidated by his history and expectations.
Even though Sir Alex has still to master emails, it’s refreshing that he was a prolific letter writer and would send out at least 2,000 Christmas cards a year: “As the leader of United I felt that it was expected of me, depending on the occasion, to send condolence or congratulatory messages or just to thank people for suggestions they had sent to the office.” The personal touch clearly still matters.
What does this tell you? Respect is a two-way street; successful leaders are those who impose their own personality on their team, business or organisation – Sir Gary Verity’s leadership at Welcome to Yorkshire is an example of this – and that no challenge is insurmountable. “For me the only time to give up is when you are dead,” he says.
Would it be good enough for Leeds United? Probably not. But, then again, has anyone been at the club long enough for Massimo Cellino to say ‘well done’? Still at least others can, and will, learn from a football genius who emerged from Govan’s shipbuilding community in Glasgow to become one of this country’s greatest ever leaders and motivators.