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?

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage