My travels have me in London today, which gave me the inspiration for this week’s quote and leadership message. After a weekend of watching soccer matches (or football as the rest of the world calls it), I think it is fitting to feature one of the most successful managers in soccer – Alex Ferguson – for my weekly leadership message. Tonight Alex Ferguson will lead his Manchester United team on the field for a game against Aston Villa, and a win will clench their 20th Premiere League championship.
First, a little about Manchester United (or “Man-U” as they are referred to here). As soccer goes, Man-U is probably one of the most storied franchises in the world. Founded in 1878, the club/team has more titles/championships than any other soccer franchise in the UK, including a record 19 league titles, 11 FA Cups, four league cups, and a dozen other titles including FIFA and UEFA World Cup championships. They are one of the wealthiest and widely supported soccer clubs in the world, recently valued at over $3 billion ($1.2 billion higher than the next most valuable sports team).
Alex Ferguson has served as the Manager (coach) for Manchester United for the last 26 years. His leadership has contributed to a significant amount of the success of the team, including more than 24 major honors under his coaching. In fact, he is recognized as the most successful soccer Manager in British history. Known as a no-nonsense leader, he is passionate, speaks candidly (sometimes a bit too much), and expects his team members to give 100% every time. But his results speak for themselves.
So I did a bit of research and a fair amount of inquiry with our fellow British team members (special thanks to Chris Arthur) to find out what has made Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team so successful. The results provide an interesting parallel to what it takes for a business to be successful in the long term. I’ve summarized it with the following five key attributes:
- No man (or woman) is more important than the team – Alex manages with a strict policy around the importance of the team over the individual. Imagine how difficult that is in a sport where a player’s compensation is based upon how good he is as an individual player. How talented he is. Or how many goals he scores. But a team only wins if it can win together. Hotshots and otherwise selfish players can’t help you win if they can’t play as part of something bigger. It’s really that simple. Sound familiar?
- Talent is Key…find it early and keep it long term – Alex is known for his ability to identify key talent at an early age, take a chance on that talent, and develop them in to a strong contributor for the team. While many of Man-U’s competitors resort to “buying” the top talent already in the league, Alex is far more likely to bet on younger talent who can be developed and shaped to the team’s style and approach over time.
- Clear on communications – His communication style can be…well let’s just say candid and colorful. Go search on quotes from Alex Ferguson and you’ll find more with four letter words than not (it took me a few searches to find one clean enough to use for this article). But with Alex you always know exactly where he stands. Now don’t get me wrong, I think he could do with a few less colorful descriptors when he speaks. But the point is important. Leadership is often about clarity of purpose and vision, and in how you communicate both.
- Commitment & persistence – A season is months in length, and a single game does not determine the fate of a team. Knowing the road ahead, committing to the long march, and having persistence in that mission is important. Last year Man-U lost the Premiere championship in disappointing fashion on the last game of the year. Manchester City stole the Cup with a last second win over their opponent, vaulting them ahead of Man-U in points standing. Yet with determination, commitment, and persistence, one year later Man-U stands ready to take that championship back. Note the quote from Alex above after a disappointing loss vs. one of their bitter rivals – “Only true champions come out and show their worth after defeat – and I expect us to do that”
- A Passion for what you do – Watch as Alex celebrates on the sidelines after every Man-U goal and you’ll get the picture. This man loves what he does. He loves the game! He loves his team! And it shows in everything he does. Even in his communication (note those with the more colorful adjectives) you get a clear picture of his passion for this game.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a longtime fan of Alex Ferguson or Manchester United (although I have grown to like the team). But I do respect success when I see it, and I found interesting the parallels to running a successful business.
Oh, and a little bit of advice for those of you find yourself in Europe and try to take in a soccer match live – call ahead! I tried to do just that on Sunday, but to no avail. After an hour train ride out to the suburbs of London and a 15 block walk to the stadium, I was quickly informed by the ticket agent “we’ve been sold out for more than two months”. Stupid American!!!