Sir Alex for vice-chancellor?

The Sun alex ferguson 2

by Dr Mark Pegg
Many miles of newsprint have been written on the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in English football – measured in titles, trophies, sheer longevity in the job – and credited with the creation of the premier global sports brand.

BUT how contextual is this impressive record of leadership? Would Alex Ferguson’s undoubtedly authentic leadership style work for more than a year in business with lots of demanding customers and shareholders to please, or for more than a few days in the individualistic world of higher education?

Most of his ‘secrets of his success’ have been revealed and scrutinised from every angle, but what makes him so special is how he mastered linking them together to create the whole. He is a charismatic leader with tremendous personal power over people, a dry humour, completely in control of his communications with others.

Harvard Business School studied his methods and identified some important success factors:

  • Talent management – a genuine devotion to developing young talent – the Manchester United Academy
  • Knowing when to let go – the hardest decisions to let good players go when their powers wane and a very particular sense of knowing when to let the biggest stars go just before they reach the end of their peak years to maximise the return on the investment
  • Individuals into a team – staying in control, managing the egos of the highly paid stars – as Sir Alex put it: “You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with thirty top professionals who are all millionaires. And if anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.”
  • Ability to adapt and change – over the 26 years, by building new teams, embracing new technology, new sports science, new media.
  • Vision – he wanted to build the team as a global sports brand – a multi-million dollar business reaching the four corners of the globe.

He calls it the ‘hairdryer’, a very direct and aggressive ‘in your face’ form of feedback. Charismatic, he is also autocratic, expecting all employees to follow his directions without question, to give him total unqualified loyalty as the leader at Manchester United. He lives the job, his work rate and attention to detail are famous and his competitiveness is unparalleled, including intimidation – of opponents: Fergie’s Mind Games; the officials – Fergie Time; and with the media – the Fergie Ban – refusing to be interviewed by the BBC for several years.

Would the style he used be anywhere near as effective outside sports or, for that matter, even in sports if he was starting out today? Is Sir Alex Ferguson a one-off?

Vice-chancellors can recognise many features of Sir Alex’s world. Talented egos are ever-present, although even the most narcissistic recognise that few triumphs are possible without excellent teamwork. There is lots of intense competition from other similar organisations and to reach the top and stay there is very difficult. Vast injections of funds are needed often on top of the revenue from the admission fee. Your best talent is also highly attractive for other teams to buy and it is hugely difficult to sustain employee loyalty to your own organisation – temptations for the best to transfer to another team are great.

There the passing resemblance to academia probably comes to an end. Sir Alex leads in a tough, physical world with the highest levels of unconscious skill – the so-called football brain – with qualities of vision, speed of thought and instinctive genius rather than academic intellect. Although some BME groups do well, premiership football remains a single sex environment.

He might not be so admired in a world where he might be authentic, but few would respect any leader who gave them the ‘hairdryer’ treatment. Few would wish to be a follower; in fact most would be repelled by a demand for unquestioning obedience to the leader. Would his leadership survive very long in a culture where constant challenge to authority and power comes as standard and a questioning style of dialogue is the norm? Would Sir Alex’s style work for a vice-chancellor where everyone in the university has an opinion and success is often seen as a collection of individual performances: where teamwork is seen as desirable rather than essential.

It might be an exciting experiment and would definitely make the front pages – but would it be a good idea? You decide.

Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation. He tweets @LFHE_CE