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What Alex Ferguson tells us about university leadership

On the publication of Sir Alex Ferguson's new book on leadership, Rob Behrens wonders if there are any lessons that university leaders should draw from the world of football and the man himself.
This article is more than 6 years old

Rob Behrens CBE is Senior Adviser to the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education, and former Chief Executive of the OIA.

Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz, Leading, Hodder and Stoughton, 2015. 

Sir Alex Ferguson has collaborated with Sir Michael Moritz to produce Leading. The personal story from working class Glasgow to director’s box and trappings at Old Trafford is remarkable. The book is an insight into Ferguson’s tried, tested and uniquely successful methods as soccer manager which led his teams to win 38 trophies including the European Cup (twice). But is a uniquely successful soccer manager a great leader with lessons for those in other sectors?

Moritz is a leader himself, and therefore has credentials to be a co-author. He is a former Time journalist and now chairman of investment firm, Sequoia Capital, with an A list of companies that he has helped shape and organise. He performs a useful function in locating the football industry alongside other creative industries. This comparison prompts the question about whether there is anything for university leaders here.

No Manchester City supporter can write about Ferguson in entirely dispassionate fashion given the hegemony Ferguson’s United exerted over British football for twenty years. This was a period when, for City, ‘history came to a full stop’. There is, then, what Disraeli once called ‘the secret history of my feelings’ in this review.

The bulk of the text is Ferguson’s account of his own career in which we are warned not to expect “any academic jargon or formulaic prose”. He “cannot imagine how anyone, without firm convictions and deep inner beliefs, can be an effective leader.” And that meant “reinforcing the ideology” (Ferguson’s term) “that no club was bigger than United”, who expected to win every game that they played.

It also meant sticking to the values of his working class upbringing, following his father’s advice; “Don’t lie, don’t steal and always be early”, and having an inner determination to avoid failure, notwithstanding that “from a fairly young age I had become accustomed to physical pain, the taste of blood in my mouth or bad bruising.”

The book should become even more interesting when Moritz writes an Epilogue viewing Ferguson through another lens. He certainly understands that leadership lies not in the mechanical articulation of core rudiments, but rather in “having the stamina, knowledge and skill to implement them” with preparation, perseverance and patience.

Moritz also writes clearly about the difference between leading and managing. A ‘great leader’ “will think and operate like an owner, or a person who owns a substantial stake of the business, even if, in a financial or legal sense, he is neither.” He (Moritz’s term) “will embrace audacity and the unthinkable, will not shirk from making controversial and unpopular decisions, and will have unshakeable confidence in his convictions.” All of this is manifest in Ferguson’s career.

Alas, ultimately the book disappoints. This is because there is insufficient clarity about whether it is an homage to Ferguson’s undoubted excellence and success as a soccer manager or a rigorous analysis of his charismatic, no-nonsense, leadership style. The analysis falls away when it moves anywhere close to a critical appraisal of Ferguson’s de-merits. (In the Acknowledgements we are told, perhaps portentously, that Jason Ferguson “prompted and nudged us at every turn.”)

Thus, Ferguson’s often intimidatory, bullying, manner towards allegedly dissident players, press or referees is brushed aside almost without comment. We are reassured that it is nothing compared to the vicious barbs, lawsuits and targeted assaults’ of leaders of technology companies on each other. Ferguson’s insensitive handling of gender issues is lost as Moritz continually and irritatingly defines great leaders as ‘he’. Women leaders hardly get a mention.

Even the suggestion that in retirement Ferguson is not prone to melancholy and does not allow himself “to dwell on whatever trophies eluded his grasp” is undermined by eight, separate, splenetic references in Ferguson’s text to United losing the Premier League title in 2012 “on goal difference” to Manchester City. The assertion that in the 1-6 thrashing by City at Old Trafford that season “for most of the game we outplayed them” is either a joke or shows how far “ideology” can take you from reality.

There is a lot missing from Moritz’s account. First are the suggestions that great leaders are not necessarily charismatic and authoritarian (however benevolent), but can be participative and collective in their approach. Secondly, that leadership – even in Silicon Valley – is not the preserve of men alone. Thirdly and critically, Moritz celebrates the strong and multi-faceted tribalism of Ferguson (family, working-class, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, United) but without acknowledging  that these act as a barrier to trusting the person as a leader to those on the outside of the tribe.

This is a point well made in reference to sectional loyalties by Geoffrey Hosking in his excellent Trust: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Last, some sustained account of nepotism would not have been misplaced. In fairness, Ferguson does address the issue when employing his own son as a player, but Moritz leaves the matter alone, and the reference to Ferguson’s deployment of his brother as United scout is confined to Ferguson’s description of him as “the greatest scout in history”.

So, university leaders should be careful before adopting what is offered as a guide to practice. They should treat it instead as a compelling account of how within the confines of the culturally distinct soccer industry, one man ‘irreproachable in his private life’ (as the Whig historians used to describe their opponents) held his nerve and continually reinvented successful soccer teams.

This is particularly the case given the recent allegations of bullying, insensitive gender handling and even charges of nepotism in a small number of university leaderships. More important, university leaders need to generate and sustain public trust in the institutions they guide. Public trust is elicited not only through competence (which Ferguson demonstrated in spades), but also through commitment to a disinterested holding of the ring. This last is essential to ensuring that universities remain institutions where ideas and schemes can be argued about without fear or favour. Realistically, neither the football industry, nor its distinguished favourite son, has very much to teach us on that central issue.

One response to “What Alex Ferguson tells us about university leadership

  1. The evidence of trust outside the tribe seems the weakest point made – since apparently everyone from Tony Blair to Harvard Business School (with the possible exception of Bertie Magoo, the bitter blue!) trust his judgement. He was certainly a trusted confidante of many of his fellow leading managers of different tribes within the same industry as well as this wider group. Not that HE leaders struggle on that score (quite the opposite in their self created Mission Groups?) Re equality he hardly has much to talk about in the still male dominated world of football management so not sure what he could have usefully contributed other than to note it? I leave the review feeling I need to read the book itself.

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