If you want to learn how to lead a group of people, you can do far worse than drawing inspiration from Sir Alex Ferguson. Without a doubt the most successful football manager of all time, Ferguson has amassed 49 trophies from teams that he has lead, whether that was Manchester United (which he took from being a struggling team to the biggest name in football), or any number of other teams that he has guided along the way.
Sir Ferguson’s new book, Leading, contains some very valuable insights on how to create a team of winners, and build a team’s culture, which apply every bit as well to the business world as it does a sporting team. Here are some of the most critical insights.
Watch people, learn from them
One of the defining skills of a good leader is one who is observant of those around him or her.
A manager that takes the time to listen to and understand each person within his or her team is one that will know the right words to use to get that person to perform at their best, or, alternatively, which words will have a demoralising effect. Before bringing a person onto the team, a good leader is one that will do their research to have a basic understanding of that person before they’re even hired, and so will know the kind of impact they will have on those around them.
The added benefit is that when you understand a person, they’re not likely to throw up any surprises, which benefits the organisation by maintaining a level of predictability.
Being good at listening and observing requires that you’re going at stepping back and no being so “hands on” at times. Being able to observe at a greater distance provides you with insight into how team-members are interacting with one another, whether there’s stress in the environment, and what the overall emotional mood of the team is like. Those insights can be invaluable, especially when for many leaders the natural inclination is to roll the sleeves up and lead from the front.
Recognise the difference between talent and hunger
Another key reason for Sir Ferguson’s success is his focus on hunger, rather than talent. Talent has obvious value to a team, but if the individual doesn’t come to work each day driven to do better than every day previous, then that talent will be used inefficiently or, worse, not at all. A person with more mild talents but who has the strong work ethic is going to make far greater use of his or her abilities, and will usually be a far better team member for it.
Be willing to be disciplined
A lack of discipline can hurt the long-term success of any team, as it can lead others on the team to become undisciplined, and the overall team can start to lose cohesion. Sir Ferguson outlined in his book how he was willing to suspend critical players, including the likes of Eric Cantona, for poor discipline, to establish a culture of discipline in performance within the team. This cost the team in the short term (for the duration of the ban), but resulted in a more cohesive and disciplined outfit over the longer term.
Keep one eye on the future
Building an excellent team for the here and now can yield short term results, but as team members from that crack outfit leave, a vacuum of talent can be left behind. One of the most effective things that Sir Ferguson has achieved through his career is to build teams that have a strong pipeline of young talent to learn from, support, and eventually replace the current line-up of “heroes”. A great leader understands skills development within a team doesn’t rely on any single individual, but is rather a collective resource that the group contributes to and adds too as the talent pipeline progresses through the years.
Establishing a culture where there are no heroes
If Sir Ferguson, managing one of the greatest sports teams and groups of athletes (egos and all) can achieve this, then there’s no excuse for any other leader not to focus on this in their own teams; make sure that every person on the team understands that they have their own role to play, and that every one of them is important to the overall effort. The striker on the team might be the one kicking the goals, but without the strong defensive line and players with the skill to pass the ball through the opponent’s defence, the team is still going to lose.
At the same time, it’s important to have other leaders within your organisation, and people that the team can look up to as “captains” when you’re not around. Don’t be the bottleneck to performance.
Manchester United is run as a business. It’s listed on the stock exchange, and its primary goal for existing is indeed to earn a profit. The players on the field are just one part of the organisation, but they are a crystal clear example of how to form an elite performing team, with a broad mix of complementary skills, in any organisation. Regardless of what kind of business you’re in, there’s plenty you can learn about team building and strategy from the experience and words of Sir Alex Ferguson.