Five Leadership Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

On a recent holiday to Santorini I read Leading by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson, who is best known for his management of Manchester United knows what it takes to build a high performing team over a sustained period of time, having won a staggering 49 trophies in 38 years. The book, which is expertly written by Sir Michael Moritz, Partner at Sequoia Capital shares the skills and attributes Ferguson looks for when building a world-class team.

Leading goes beyond the raw ingredients of effective leadership such as hard work, determination and resilience, and instead looks at how Ferguson built Manchester United into a hugely successful organisation both on and off the pitch.

I’m a firm believer that by looking at other fields you can gain a fresh perspective or build upon existing ideas, and this book is testament to that. It’s a true case study in leadership and five lessons stood out:

1. Recognise everyone works in sales
Whether you’re a Premiership football manager, individual contributor at Silicon Valley’s latest startup or a middle manager for a large corporate, everyone works in sales. While you may not be on the phone to clients or prospects, everyone at some point will have to sell their ideas to colleagues and other stakeholders. Being able to effectively articulate a vision and persuade people of its value is a hugely important leadership skill.

2. Get comfortable making decisions with imperfect information
We’re fortunate to live in an age where there’s more data than ever before. This can help us make more informed and hopefully better decisions, but it can also lead to an overreliance on data or indecision. In the book, Ferguson talks about being comfortable making decisions with incomplete data and how this mindset helps him reach a decision more quickly.

3. Understand that delegation is the most effective way to get work done
Effective leadership involves trusting people and delegating work and responsibility to others. Not only does this approach nurture other members of the team, but it helps get more work done. Ferguson shares that it took him a while to learn that working with and through others is the most effective way to amplify his reach and impact.

4. Listen intently to those you lead
This is the very first lesson in the book and in my opinion, a much underrated skill. If you are leading people you need to have a true sense of who they are - what will motivate and inspire them. You can achieve this by listening intently to the people you lead. In Leading, Ferguson explains that by listening to others you are likely to gain new insights and perspectives, often from unexpected sources.

5. Focus on what’s truly important
Learning to allocate time effectively so you concentrate on your organisation’s mission or high value goals is essential. By having a clear focus on what’s important and communicating this frequently, leaders set the tone for the entire organisation. To avoid distractions, Ferguson emphasises the importance of leaders saying “no” frequently.

If you’re looking for an alternative management book, which presents many important business lessons in a fresh context, then read Leading. Ferguson has a fascinating story to tell and Moritz has done a fine job of drawing out some of the less obvious parallels between the worlds of sport and business. It’s a well-written, thoughtful and insightful read.