Alex Ferguson's style of management was innate, with a faint whiff of violence

The commonest myth about leadership is that it’s a skill. It isn’t.

Everyone knows that athletes have to make a virtue out of unreflectiveness. A blank mind, the absence of irrelevant thought, an ability to forget the past, to block out the future, to exist in the moment – these are the psychological traits of most great players. “Just do it” – the best known of Nike’s slogans – said it best. That is why sportsmen often dry up when asked to explain what they were thinking, let alone how they were feeling. As little as possible is the honest answer.

Having read Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, I am beginning to think the same can apply to management. This is much more of a shock. Whole industries – not just management books but also the lucrative lecture circuit – depend on the assumption that we can draw transferrable “lessons” by exploring the theories of successful leaders. The truth is much more uneven and complicated.

Some leaders do proceed according to principles that fit into a theoretical framework. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, enabled his impoverished team to beat much richer ones by exploiting inefficiencies in the transfer market. He has tried to turn management into a science. This is leadership by methodology – thinking or, more accurately, calculating your way to victory.

Yet there is a different type of leader, who depends on something much simpler and harder to emulate: the innate force of their personality. Ferguson was firmly in this latter camp. His theoretical musings are much less interesting than those aspects of his personality that elude reflectiveness, even now.

The commonest misconception about leadership is that it is a skill. It isn’t; it’s an effect. Ferguson’s presence changed how people acted. Central to that was his fierce and unslakeable competitiveness. I began the book wondering why a septuagenarian knight of the realm was traipsing around the nation’s supermarkets signing hardbacks, still selling his side of the story – how could he be so dismissive of his former players, why stoop to that level? Then, I realised that it was all magnificently in keeping with his character. Sniping, fighting, settling scores: you don’t need Ferguson to explain what he was good at; he is still doing it as you read. To learn from this book, ignore the theory, feel the venom.

It is all too easy to point out the logical flaws in Ferguson’s book. “Always tell them the truth,” he writes about his relations with players. You know what he means but it is clearly untrue. Always? When they are vulnerable, when you are rebuilding their self-belief, when they are tending towards conceit? No, the truth is just one psychological weapon, alongside bluff and all the others. The question is when to tell them the truth and how.

The book also resiles from explicitly admiring power, even though the pursuit and preservation of power is the book’s subliminal theme. The only time he explicitly mentions the term, he denies it is relevant, as though power were a dirty word, perhaps tainted by capitalist overtones. He prefers the word control. I can’t see the difference.

Ferguson’s personality was naturally coercive. Violence is the most underrated of all leadership traits (and I write as an ex-captain who had no gift for it at all). By violence, I do not mean the use of violence or even the threat of violence. I mean the possibility of violence. Sport is about confrontation. In the vast majority of sports, that confrontation is abstract. Physical blows become metaphorical blows. Where the boxer strikes directly with his fist, the tennis player does so by hitting a ball with his racket from the safety of the other side of the net.

However, even in non-contact sports, something of that underlying physicality survives the process of translation. Some players, a few lucky players, seethe with the threat of violence. They do not have to do anything to prove it; you simply know it is there. You see it in their eyes. With some opponents – even though rationally I always knew there was almost zero chance that the cricket match would descend into trading blows – something much more powerful than rationality advised me not to test my assessment of the “almost zero chance”.

Managers, too, benefit from the same quality. No leader achieves greatness by punching people. Quite a few, however, benefit from the impression that it would be a grave error for anyone entirely to rule out the possibility. Ferguson was a publican before becoming a manager. “Sometimes I would come home with a split head or black eye. That was pub life. When fights broke out, it was necessary to jump in to restore order.” Try imagining Arsène Wenger having done that – or boasting about it later if he had.

Ferguson also recognised his own brand of physicality in others. He liked to have enforcers in his side – and on his side. When the iron-willed Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic told his manager that he might go to fight in Kosovo, Ferguson purred with delight: “He had the eyes for it.”

In one crucial respect, this book is anything but a sell-out. It is a football book through and through. It has little time for abstract theory. It is concerned with the nitty-gritty – judging players, sacking people, conquering rivals, quelling uprisings. Trying to write a grander, more elevated book would have been dishonest in tone as well as substance.

At the heart of this book is a paradox that unwittingly skewers the premise of the genre: to lead like Ferguson, you first have to be like Ferguson, which requires you not to be trying to be somebody else. The people I feel sorry for are not the targets of his pen, not Beckham and Keane, but the students at Harvard Business School who are undoubtedly already underlining the wrong sentences – such as, “Tell them the truth” – and ignoring the crucial point, never written down but always felt by the reader: you can’t fake it.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Sir Alex Ferguson, celebrating a victory. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.