As I wrote last time, the recent announcement of the retirement of Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s legendary manager, generated an outpouring of articles in the British press. Of course, much of what I saw in the newspapers and magazines focused on the man’s remarkable record of success in leading his side to the peaks of British and European football glory. More interesting to me, though, was discovering aspects of his personality and management philosophy that I had not seen before, characteristics that led me to compare him to another sports legend, former basketball coach Phil Jackson.
Why did my recent reading about Alex Ferguson make me think of Jackson? On the surface, they would seem to be vastly different. Ferguson’s style was often autocratic and blustering, while Jackson managed more like a deeply reflective Zen philosopher. Whatever their outward differences, though, each focused relentlessly on team culture, listened intently, and took a deep personal interest in his players outside of work.
In the Financial Times, football columnist Simon Kuper relates that when Ferguson came to Manchester United in 1986, he inherited a wounded giant that was playing badly. They had not won a title in 19 years. At that time, players famously enjoyed long, liquid pub “lunches”, a practice that the new manager considered appalling. Ferguson had been a highly successful manager in Scotland, known for his domineering, no-nonsense personality. As such, many observers expected rapid and radical change.
Rather than decrying the club’s rotten mood, though, and rather than coming in as the dictatorial outsider forcing change, Sir Alex chose a different path. Understanding that the club enjoyed a rich history and a strong culture that had become somewhat lost, he spent his first months in Manchester interviewing all types of people, from the cleaners to the executives, from the most vocal fans to the greatest legendary former players. As he came to understand the team’s traditional values, he decided to build his story around embodying those values himself.
Jorge Valdano, the renowned Argentine former player and current football philosopher, has stated that one of Ferguson’s most remarkable attributes is simply that he “bleeds the club’s history.” Indeed, the manager’s immersion in the club’s culture became one of the underpinnings of its unmatched run of success. Former England defender Sol Campbell, who had a long and stellar club career with Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle–three of Manchester United’s fiercest rivals–explains: “He had a special chemistry with Manchester United. He was like the DNA of the club. He would look after everybody, remember people’s birthdays, go round to parents’ houses. It’s the little bits behind the scenes that make the difference.”
It is this attention to the small details of interaction with personnel, his slow management, that makes me think again of Phil Jackson, who often gave gifts of books to his players, tomes chosen carefully for each individual based on his personal development needs.
Like Jackson, Alex Ferguson is apparently a lifelong learner. Those close to him say that he spends hours on the telephone each day, nurturing contacts with managers and former players, chatting with anyone from whom he can learn something or glean valuable information.
According to Kuper, Sir Alex was open to all forms of learning throughout his career. From his foreign players, he would seek to discover training methods that were sometimes superior to those practiced in the English league. And, he read extensively. From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he gained insight into managing clashing personalities within an organization.
My conclusion? Well, recent reading has certainly changed my perception of this man. As we say farewell to Sir Alex, we should of course honor his achievements, and we should also recognize that the lessons of his leadership extend far beyond football.