Review: Leading by Sir Alex Ferguson

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Gum-chewing football manager supreme Sir Alex Ferguson, having filled his trophy cabinet several times over, appears to be working harder in his retirement than most do during their actual careers. That work ethic sees Ferguson releasing his second book since leaving Manchester United on top of teaching at Harvard Business School, attending most of Manchester United’s football matches, and a host of other commitments.

His latest release, Leading (2015), represents a slight shift in direction from the old hand. Written with Sir Michael Moritz, a long-time admirer of Ferguson and massively successful businessman himself, Leading sees Ferguson tiptoeing into the realm of business guru-ship. And why not? Having lead Manchester United to more trophies than any other manager in history, Ferguson was the driving force (along with money-men) of the biggest commercial success in world football for more than two decades.

Leading by Sir Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz book cover
With Moritz’s business pedigree – partner at Sequoia Capital, venture capitalists that have bankrolled some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names – Leading is a significant step away from the football memoirs that make up Ferguson’s previous literary output. Nevertheless, Ferguson draws heavily on examples from his own time in charge of both Aberdeen and Manchester United to illustrate the qualities he sees as desirable in successful leaders. His style is conversational and there is no management-speak, needless acronyms, or hot air. Just simple, straight-forward advice from a man who knows a lot about leading others – on the pitch, in the boardroom, and (possibly as importantly) in the canteen and the laundry.

Given the conversational style, it is almost inevitable that Ferguson occasionally repeats himself or talks around an issue that could be relayed in far fewer words. Equally, there are a few factual and proofreading errors that slip through, but no one was expecting a literary tour de force. More irritating are the occasions where arguments are poorly made or contradictory statements made. For those familiar with popular business books these qualities may not be unexpected but one can’t help but feel Ferguson’s message could have been cut to under one hundred pages had he or the publishers had a mind to do so. Brevity and getting the basics right seem to be Ferguson’s great strengths in management. Had he been able to transfer these qualities to Leading, the book would have been that bit sharper (although the publisher probably couldn’t have charged £25 a copy).

Readers who know Ferguson from his footballing days will not be surprised by much in the book. There are no startling revelations about his practice as a manager, but rather some good solid advice sewn together by some interesting asides from his own past. The trick, as with most good advice, is not in knowing it but in implementing it. Although it is impossible for me to say, being an avid fan of Ferguson, I do wonder if those who are less familiar with him and come to the book purely from a business perspective will find his advice a little more useful. The lack of fancy models, needless acronyms, and all the other guff that comes with so many management books should be indicative of exactly how useful a successful man like Ferguson actually found all the intellectual paraphernalia that floats around business management. If ever you wanted to hear the value of hard work and repeatedly getting the simple things right, then Ferguson is the man to relay the message.

That said, most of the observations made in Leading are fairly general. In fact, here is a bullet point list, which covers the key points of Ferguson’s message:

  • Think long-term and be consistent
  • Work hard, really hard
  • Value every member of your organisation
  • Listen well
  • Prepare well
  • Bring young talent into your organisation regularly and nurture it
  • Be prepared to make decisions based on imperfect information
  • Remember that the leader should always be the most important person in an organisation (the one with the real control)

Those looking for something more specific, or more complex than the above list will be disappointed. "We are all haunted by failure," Ferguson writes. "It was my own inner-determination to avoid failure that always provided me with an extra personal incentive to succeed." I’m not sure there is a lot more to it than that: work hard every day of your life, and to a purpose. The thing is, that is a lot harder than it sounds.




For football fans, the one titbit that you’ll enjoy arguing over more than anything else in the book, are the four players that Ferguson names as the only world class talents he managed while at United: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Eric Cantona. Let the pub debates begin – for my part, I’m throwing giant Dane Peter Schmeichel into the mix. Tell me he wasn’t one of the very best keepers of the 1990s.

As is evident from his reinvention as a business guru and after dinner speaker, Ferguson is a man who knows how to adapt. It was always so in his footballing career. Whether he has quite found his niche is debatable: Leading isn’t quite as satisfying as it should be either as a treatise on leadership or as an insight into the workings of the most prominent football manager of his generation. Yet, it is near impossible not to enjoy being in Ferguson’s company for someone, like me, who is an avid fan of his.

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