Nick Robinson: what I learned about leadership from Sir Alex Ferguson

The BBC's former politics editor – and Man Utd fan – interviewed the legendary football manager to see what wisdom he could acquire from "the most consistently successful leader I’ve ever seen"

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What is heaven like if you’re a teenage boy? I can tell you. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Heaven is competing with your brother in a quiz to reveal who knows most about the team you both love, with the questions being posed by a man you’ve looked up to for your whole life – your footballing hero.

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So it was for my lucky boys a few weeks ago when they were in the kitchen of a house in Wilmslow, Cheshire. After years of putting politicians on the spot, Dad was finally interviewing someone they cared about. Their quizmaster – who was having powder put on his face by a make-up artist – was the man described by Harvard University’s Business School as the most successful British football manager of all time.

He is Sir Alex Ferguson, the subject of my BBC1 documentary, which examines the secrets of the success of a man who managed Manchester United for over a quarter of a century, and whose 49-trophy haul is unlikely to ever be matched. As someone who’s spent his career studying and analysing leaders and, yes, as a lifelong United supporter, I’ve long wanted to explore what lessons the most consistently successful leader I’ve ever seen can teach others, whether on or off the pitch.

Harvard professor Anita Elberse says, “I think he’s one of the world’s alltime great leaders… I think there’s something to be learned from him for virtually every leader in whatever industry it might be – whether it’s politics, or whether it’s business or whether we’re talking about another domain.” The classes Elberse runs with him in “Fergie Studies” – not, of course, their official title – attract young entrepreneurs from around the world. I tease him by calling him Professor Ferguson. His real title is fellow to the executive education programme at Harvard Business School.

I interviewed Sir Alex for many hours over two days. My aim was not to get him to relate his favourite football anecdotes but to explain and analyse why he was so successful for so long. His answer is summed up in one word: consistency. “In the 26-and-a-half years I was there, I never changed my conviction or my philosophy or my attitudes – and I think the players recognised that. Every day it was the same guy… That consistency created players who were consistent. The club was consistent – and that’s what made it the best club in the world. Without question.” Fergie is self-aware enough to know that for all his footballing triumphs he could not simply switch to the Cabinet or boardroom, the factory floor or the battlefield, and match that success.

However, he knows too that there are parallels between what he did and what other leaders must do. So, we discussed how he set out to change the culture of a struggling organisation (which United certainly was in the mid-80s, when he was hired); saw the need to be constantly open to new ideas and prepared to change; learned how to manage up as well as down and understood how to motivate not just his first-team players but all those who contributed to the success of the club – including the groundsmen, the laundry women and the canteen staff – all of whom he knew not just by name but as characters.

“The first thing I had to do at Manchester United was rebuild the club. I think the club is the essence of the venture of making a successful team. Most managers go to a football club because it’s a ‘result’ industry. They’re there to turn around the fortunes of the first team, that’s why they get the job. I never thought that way. My philosophy was to build a football club.” Paying attention to these “details” were, he told me, “all points to the top of the mountain”, adding, “When you’re at the top… and you’ve got there and the view is beautiful. In normal circumstances you have to come down the mountain. Not in football. At Manchester United you have to stay up there and look at the view – you can’t come down.”

It became clear to me that the foundation of Sir Alex’s success is the remarkable people skills I witnessed in that Cheshire kitchen. Wowing a couple of teenage football fans might seem like no big deal, but instantly recalling precisely where and when he’d first met them many years earlier is. Remembering the names of the filming and technical crews and staying on after filming to open a magnum of rather fine vintage champagne and pouring each of them a glass was even more so. 

The graduates of the Fergie school of management explain why he was so good at teaching, motivating and disciplining young men from every part of the globe. At Harvard they ask students to examine how much leadership is about love, and how much about fear. The answer, perhaps predictably, is that both are key. Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably one of the world’s greatest players, told me that “it was a family with him in Manchester United… He made me feel like ‘Cristiano, this is your house.’”

Still clearly moved by the memory, he described the support he was given when his father was seriously ill. “When my daddy was sick in London, and he was in hospital, very bad, in a coma, I had a conversation with [Ferguson] and I say, ‘Boss, we are in a key moment in the league, in the Champions League,’ but I say, ‘I don’t feel good, I want to see my dad.’” Fergie replied: “‘Cristiano, you want to go one day, two days, one week – you can go. I’m going to miss you here, because you know that you are important, but your daddy is in first place.’ When he told me that I feel like, ‘Phew, this guy is unbelievable… This is why I love him.’”

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One of Britain’s finest-ever home-grown players, Ryan Giggs, explains how the man they called “The Boss” knew when to put an arm round a player and when to turn on what became known as the “hairdryer” – when he shouted so close to a player’s face that they could feel and not just hear his anger. Giggs jokes that he made a mistake that he regretted for 20 years by upping his game after his first experience of the hairdryer. From then on the manager knew that what some would see as bullying got the best out of one of his star players.