Imagine being a manager of a company which sits nicely on the map of the world’s biggest live entertainment business. In fact, your organisation has now been named as the sector’s joint-most valuable in the world. You joined it in 1986, and while the business had a loyal audience, its potential and performance were in danger of reaching a plateau.

1986 was the year of “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, and if love is anything to go by, you’re famous for being obsessively in love with and having an all-consuming addiction for your craft, and that is football; the beautiful game.

Imagine being Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful football coach, an ex-manager of Manchester United, credited with creating a football giant with the enterprise value of about £2.4bn and annual revenues of around £500m and powered by people as its main product, PR, broadcasting rights deals, consumer goods, advertising etc.

Yet, in his book called “Leading”, published last year, he says that he is not a management expert or business guru, which makes me think he must be a modest guy. In “Leading” he is hoping to provide the readers with an easily digestible summary of his winning leadership recipe which secured his place at the top for so long.

His nuggets of wisdom are, dare I say simple, yet potent; it’s refreshing to see a leader who does not over complicate the leadership formula. To keep in the spirit of accessible leadership literature, here are some of Ferguson’s tips he used on the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney. Hopefully, they prove handy in your professional toolbox, regardless of your industry and whether you’re at the top or starting out:

• Work Ethic

Nothing beats work ethics in the pursuit of winning. Consider what principles and behaviours can keep you and your organisation at its peak. Make them known to everybody. Lead by example. Be consistent. Never give up. Ferguson was known for his 18 hour days and arriving at work before the milkman, David Beckham and of course, his gruelling self-imposed training not just in the mornings and afternoons, but evenings as well.

• Listening

Do not be a manager who can talk under water. Skillful listening is an influencing skill; it means you managed to get others to talk. The more they talk, the more relevant insights they reveal so your response can focus on what’s impactful, not indulgent. Above all, listening as opposed to talking or giving unsolicited advice, builds trust and relationships.

• Watching & Observing

Zoom in on details but avoid micromanaging as it eclipses the bigger picture. Pause and observe what goes on around you; if you’re in the thick of things, it’s hard to size up others and measure situations. Step back, do nothing, see what your eyes tell you. Some of Ferguson’s best decisions and players were rewards for a lifetime of careful watching.

• Discipline and Determination

Hard work is talent too, says Ferguson, and adds the he chooses discipline over talent with no grit or desire. Team players who don’t take their job seriously undermine collective success. Wild cards are the antithesis of collaboration. Be explicit with what your expectations are and set clear boundaries and accountability. There may be a price to pay for discipline, but it’s worth paying it in the long run; it keeps anarchy at bay.

• Emotional Intelligence

Hunger for success is not enough. You need to be emotionally and mentally strong. Body and mind are part of one system; one supports another in managing anxiety, failure or fear. Ronaldo had a tough childhood, but he knew that playing a victim or a blame game was a dead end in the pursuit of excellence. This acted as a positive springboard for his on and off pitch behaviour, growth mind-set and self-care.


Your beliefs directly affect your feelings, decisions and, therefore, your destiny. Without a conviction, you are the con in your own biography. Any goal must be supported by a corresponding belief which acts as a powerful neurology to succeed. You have to disempower negative feelings and opinions about yourself or your circumstances in order to reach your full potential. Tip: Observe your behaviour. What belief does it represent?

• Team Composition

Team profile is key to high performance. For Manchester United, it meant a diversity of players’ age and their creative or dependable playing styles. Ferguson also points out that old-timers must show adequate patience with newcomers. In my work, when building high-performing teams, I conduct team personality profiles as an effective tool for creating cohesion and united performance. Big egos with a desire to win can be good for the team. Ensure they operate in the spirit of respect for others and discipline, and are able to balance individual glory with team triumphs.

• Want – Need – Get

Ferguson is a goal-focused man in both meanings of the word. He made it clear what he wanted, what he needed and what it meant to get there. He says there is no room for criticism on the training ground but regular feedback and a simple “Well done, the two best words ever invented in sports”, improve performance. Tip from Sir Alex: Never discuss individual team members’ mistakes in public. In one, rarely seen such case, Ferguson criticised Rio Ferdinand which he promptly settled with him and was something he later regretted.

• Organisational Leadership

As a leader you have the responsibility to build a sustainable business. Exceptional teams will not thrive in an unexceptional business for long. Ferguson’s first key mission in 1986 was to assess and build a great club. He believed this was a condition to acquiring a great team.

Reflecting on Sir Alex Ferguson’s style, rather than appraising him as a person, it is evident that a strong character is a prerequisite for effective leadership and managing change and complex stakeholder relationships.

Secondly, clarity aids success and ambiguity feeds failure. Ferguson’s simple and precise communication heightened everyone’s accountability, left no room for guessing games and no wastage of time or energy.

With football being capable of generating incredible emotions and passion, Sir Alex Ferguson believed he had to be present as a leader to be able to exercise control and praise as powerful tools to get the best of the players.

Finally, Ferguson does not give false hopes; keeping your eyes on the ball (pun intended), insatiable hunger akin to his nearly-pathological obsession with football and hard work is the fee you pay for sustained high performance.

The question is – are you prepared to pay the price?