Of course, I had planned to start something completely different on the blog this week, but I have been distracted these past two days by reaction to the announcement that Alex Ferguson is retiring as manager of one of the world’s top football sides, Manchester United.
Now, before you get to thinking that this week’s post will be about football, rest assured that I have no intention of that. As I am always quick to emphasize, I do not write of Margaret Thatcher or Barack Obama to discuss politics, or of Phil Jackson to expound upon the game of basketball. Rather, I look for leadership lessons in their stories. Sir Alex, as he is widely known, certainly presents some fascinating ones.
Ironically, and as I read in an article in this week’s issue of The Economist, the politician Sir Alex most resembles is indeed Margaret Thatcher, whom he has always claimed to detest. Ferguson comes from a Scottish, working-class background, and he has always supported Labor candidates. In fact, it was rumored that the Manchester United boss was one of a small group of individuals who had a direct line to Tony Blair throughout the Labor prime minister’s term in office.
Nonetheless, the similarities in character with Mrs. Thatcher are remarkably striking. Both of them rose to the highest ranks of their profession, and gained global recognition, through a combination of direct, no nonsense management, stubbornness of personality, and relentless drive. Both of them told authentic personal stories to motivate and lead others. And, both of them made their organizations great.
Both Lady Thatcher and Sir Alex used the lessons of their past as inspiration. Whereas Thatcher’s core values came from her upbringing in the traditional milieu of middle-class English shopkeepers, Ferguson’s worldview was colored by a working-class childhood in the west of Scotland. “Any success I have had in handling men…owes much to my upbringing among the working men of Clydeside,” Sir Alex once wrote. Indeed, his core values–group solidarity and manly leadership–seem to emanate from industrial Glasgow.
As was true with Thatcher, Alex Ferguson was often loved and revered by his supporters, and at the same time berated and scorned by his opponents. But, no matter where one might sit politically (or “footballistically”, as the French would say), it is difficult not to admire this man’s remarkable accomplishments as a leader and public figure.
A culturally aware practitioner of slow management:
I must admit that reading the British press Wednesday and Thursday left me with an altered image of the man and the manager. As a longtime backer of rival club Arsenal, I have never been a “fan” of Sir Alex, at least not in the sporting sense. And, while I do not follow matches or the football journals closely, I had read on several occasions of his dictatorial manner, his brash, boorish and sometimes bullying behavior with league and match officials. So, I was a bit surprised when articles in the Financial Times and The Economist presented a different side, one far easier for me to admire.
In fact, I learned that much of his success was less due to his football strategies, and more a consequence of the abilities he honed as a manager of people. Three aspects of his career at Manchester United were of particular interest to me: his keen emphasis on group culture, his use of slow management, and his own lifelong learning. It is in these three aspects that Sir Alex reminded me of his basketball counterpart Phil Jackson.
On the surface, Sir Alex and Phil Jackson–the fiery domineering dictator and the reflective Zen master–would seem to be polar opposites. But a more thorough examination shows that, on a deeper level, their approaches to management were perhaps more similar than meets the eye. More on this next time.