I’ve been away, but got back in time to hear Sir Alex Ferguson bid farewell to the Old Trafford faithful yesterday. It was the first time for a while that football has brought a tear to my eye. No matter what happens to Manchester United from now on, things will never be quite the same again.
Having supported the club since 1965, then an enthusiastic 8 year old, I recall the immediate post-Busby era of decline and relegation. Tommy Doc and Big Ron brought back excitement and hope in the decade to the mid-1980s. But periodic Cup triumphs never translated into the consistency of performance necessary to win League Championships. Fergie not only eventually managed to achieve this but also instilled a belief that success would follow success, regardless of the strength of increasingly powerful opponents. Rarely in the past 20 years has failure in any one season been by a large margin or persistent, with despair soon followed by renewed triumph. Time will tell if this era of resilience is over but I fear that it might be. Manchester United have more than enough financial resource to remain a top four Premier League club for the foreseeable future. But somehow I don’t expect the season climaxing months of April and May to be as adrenaline inducing as they have been throughout the Ferguson era.
I see from the media that quite a lot has been written and said about Sir Alex’s leadership and management qualities, some of it an excuse for the kind of management speak guff that one regularly hears. My view is that if there are wider lessons to be drawn from Fergie’s success they stem not so much from his ability to nurture and orchestrate talented individual players into winning teams but rather from a number of key personal values that underpinned his approach to management. Aside from the obvious need for hard work, the values that time and again crop up whenever Sir Alex is mentioned are those of ambition, honesty and, especially, loyalty.
The thing that has shocked me most in organisational life is the number of people who are satisfied with mediocrity, either because they prefer to drag colleagues down to their own level or because they can’t be bothered to make the effort to excel. Such are the enemies of success. Honesty in the face of such limited ambition or effort is equally important – being honest with oneself and others, even if as in Fergie’s case this means occasional use of the metaphorical hairdryer treatment.
Most important of all is loyalty, both to the cause any organisation sets for itself and to one another within the organisation. Success cannot be built on lack of trust or betrayal of colleagues in order to satisfy some personal ambition or objective. No single individual should think of themselves as being bigger than the team – the disloyalty this breeds is corrosive to all. Hence Sir Alex’s evident disappointment over the years in players prepared to leave Manchester United, be it for money or, even worse, in the belief that they might achieve greater success elsewhere.
Ambition, honesty and loyalty are personal qualities of great men and women. These are not ‘management skills’ that can be acquired, though they can be used to influence the behaviour and performance of us lesser mortals. Sir Alex Ferguson is such a great man. It is that which made him a great football manager and would doubtless have enabled him to succeed in another walk of life had the rebuilding of Manchester United not been his ‘impossible dream’.