It’s almost impossible to be neutral about Alex Ferguson, so it’s unsurprising that coverage of his autobiography has been extensive. For some, he is a hero and a role model. Indeed, he is the subject of a Harvard Case Study and there are many lists of ‘Leadership Lessons’ from Alex Ferguson. For others, the admiration seems to be based entirely on the success of Manchester United, and is unwarranted. Taking it to extremes, Attila the Hun and the Mafia are examples of success, but I’m not sure they provide role models for the modern manager.
One example of dubious behaviour is what the press are fond of calling Ferguson’s ‘mind-games’, giving the impression of an intriguing battle of wits. In leadership terms, we’d more likely call it ‘undermining’. I’m also not sure that shouting in people’s faces (the infamous hairdryer moments) should be promoted as good leadership technique.
For me, the book confirms the picture of a violent control freak, an intensely political creature and a man who found an arena where his personal traits could be effective; managing overpaid, immature and not particularly well educated young bloods. In fact, as many of his protégé’s matured, Ferguson seemed to have a knack of falling out with them!
So where are the positives? What can Ferguson illustrate that is of wider value? The big lesson seems to be that leadership has to be appropriate for the context i.e. leadership styles and approaches are not necessarily transferable. Ferguson found his niche but could he have been successful elsewhere, or even at another club? As a leader, it becomes important to ask the questions:
What is the context in which I am operating? And how do I use my natural talents to be effective in this context?
And this illustrates why leadership cannot simply be learnt from books; no single recipe works.