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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.