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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grenfell survivors were promised no rent rises – so why have the authorities gone quiet?

The council now says it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, the government made a pledge that survivors would be rehoused permanently on the same rent they were paying previously.

For families who were left with nothing after the fire, knowing that no one would be financially worse off after being rehoused would have provided a glimmer of hope for a stable future.

And this is a commitment that we’ve heard time and again. Just last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reaffirmed in a statement, that the former tenants “will pay no more in rent and service charges for their permanent social housing than they were paying before”.

But less than six weeks since the tragedy struck, Kensington and Chelsea Council has made it perfectly clear that responsibility for honouring this lies solely with DCLG.

When it recently published its proposed policy for allocating permanent housing to survivors, the council washed its hands of the promise, saying that it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels:

“These commitments fall within the remit of the Government rather than the Council... It is anticipated that the Department for Communities and Local Government will make a public statement about commitments that fall within its remit, and provide details of the period of time over which any such commitments will apply.”

And the final version of the policy waters down the promise even further by downplaying the government’s promise to match rents on a permanent basis, while still making clear it’s nothing to do with the council:

It is anticipated that DCLG will make a public statement about its commitment to meeting the rent and/or service charge liabilities of households rehoused under this policy, including details of the period of time over which any such commitment will apply. Therefore, such commitments fall outside the remit of this policy.”

It seems Kensington and Chelsea council intends to do nothing itself to alter the rents of long-term homes on which survivors will soon be able to bid.

But if the council won’t take responsibility, how much power does central government actually have to do this? Beyond a statement of intent, it has said very little on how it can or will intervene. This could leave Grenfell survivors without any reassurance that they won’t be worse off than they were before the fire.

As the survivors begin to bid for permanent homes, it is vital they are aware of any financial commitments they are making – or families could find themselves signing up to permanent tenancies without knowing if they will be able to afford them after the 12 months they get rent free.

Strangely, the council’s public Q&A to residents on rehousing is more optimistic. It says that the government has confirmed that rents and service charges will be no greater than residents were paying at Grenfell Walk – but is still silent on the ambiguity as to how this will be achieved.

Urgent clarification is needed from the government on how it plans to make good on its promise to protect the people of Grenfell Tower from financial hardship and further heartache down the line.

Kate Webb is head of policy at the housing charity Shelter. Follow her @KateBWebb.