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Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United Hardcover – October 6, 2015
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About the Author
Sir Alex Ferguson is a former Scottish player and manager who managed Manchester United from 1986 to 2013. His time at the club has led to Ferguson being regarded as one of the most successful, admired and respected managers in the history of the game. On May 8, 2013, Ferguson announced his retirement as manager of Manchester United. During his 27 years at the club, he won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier Leagues and two UEFA Champions League titles.
Sir Michael Moritz is a venture capitalist and chairman of Sequoia Capital, the original backers of Apple, Cisco, YouTube and WhatsApp; he has also served on the board of directors of Google, LinkedIn, PayPal and Yahoo!. He is a former journalist with Time Magazine and author of the first history of Apple, The Little Kingdom. Originally from Wales, he lives near San Francisco, CA.
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Top Customer Reviews
Indeed, even as a Liverpool fan , I have to admire Alex Ferguson’s track record as manager of Manchester United: he won 17 league titles, 14 domestic cups and 2 Champions leagues. Admittedly, he didn't reach Liverpool manager Bob Paisley's 3 Champions leagues, but no-one is perfect. To get some sense of what made him tick is intriguing.
What is clear is that he was obsessed with football. His family knew that was his priority, which meant missed Christmases and even sacking his son when he wasn't up to scratch when playing for Manchester United. His knowledge seems almost encyclopaedic. When Lionel Barber revealed that he had supported Tottenham Hotspur since 1961, Sir Alex was quick to say that was the year Spurs won the “double” (the league and the FA Cup).
One interesting thing was despite his success, before every game he always had that churning feeling in his stomach, especially at Anfield. But whatever the feelings, his goal was always to win. He learned more in defeats than victories to make sure it didn't happen again.
Another character trait he developed was to make decisions with imperfect information. In the book, he chides those that lack confidence to stick to decisions or those that are in a perpetual quest for the last morsel of information using that as an excuse not make decision. He believes consistency is critical in leadership so people know who you are. He had a reputation for losing his temper, but he found when it was for the right reason it was fine and he never held on to anger. He views listening as critical, and reads lots (with a particular fondness for books on the military and American history).
One of the defining features of Sir Alex’s tenure was his focus on renewing his team with young players. Early on he intended to make Manchester United a great club, rather than just creating a great team. As it turns out he found inspiration from Warren Buffet's long-term approach. But that's where his admiration for the investment community stops. He writes that he heard that the combined earnings of hedge fund managers is more than Premier league, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A combined, and goes on:
"Don't tell me that some 28 year old who can manipulate a spreadsheet (of which there are hundreds of thousands , maybe million) deserves to be paid more than midfielder playing for Swansea City or Southampton"
The path to transforming Manchester United started on his first day in 1986, when he wasn’t afraid to tell the players to stop drinking (the team had a problem). In the end, he sacked some of the older and less willing players, though he regretted it took him so long to make the call. He set up a much bigger scouting system locally in Manchester and motivated the scouts to find the best young players in the town, not just the street.
In players he looked for drive and a good work ethic, which trumped talent alone. The best players Ronaldo, Giggs, Cantona, Beckham had to be dragged off the training ground. Bryan Robson, despite shoulder injuries, would do 1000 press-ups a day. Players were dropped if they missed training. In the long run, principles were more important than expediency.
As for his style of managing, he focused on relentless homework, training, and a good organisation. He would dwell on opponents weaknesses not strengths. He kept a close eye on player ages - the team's median age hovered around 26 for a remarkable 25 years. He would have a four cycle to turn the team over.
He saw that exceptional players had to be challenged to in order not to get bored. Equally, he saw that clashes between players could destroy a team. One such example was Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole who constantly clashed. On one occasion they argued in the tunnel at half-time. Sir Alex told them if they ever repeated that behaviour they would both be sacked. It never happened again. He was careful how to define success - rather than telling them to "win the league and two cups" he would tell them to "win every match", which made it more tangible. He also learned that his physical presence around players during training was as important a motivational tool as anything.
Sir Alex may not seem to change much, but he did incorporate the latest sports science. Some were accidental – an ophthalmologist wagered that his new grey away kit would lead to losses as the players would not be able to see other. This proved to be correct. Sir Alex then took her on, and she worked with the players to widen their peripheral vision. Others were more planned. He took to latest developments in sports science. Players would get full physical tests before and after their summer breaks. This included every dimension of their physicality as well as blood tests. He shifted away from excessive running in training to more core work. He incorporated video analysis around training and try to eke out 1% improvements in players.
As for the broader club, he ensured he knew everyone from the laundry people to the groundsman. On foreign trips, he made sure to make much of the hotel chef. At the same time, some traits from his upbringing never disappeared, most notably his frugality. Indeed, he got so sick of his players swapping shirts or giving them away, that he told them they had to pay for the replacement shirts out of their own pockets!
Finally, he sees leadership as a quest to never stop building - otherwise stagnation follows.
For more like this, see [...]
I neither know nor really care about football or Manchester United, but I was rather hoping to learn something about leadership. I certainly remember Man United was known as a great club 10-15 years ago, and it's don't pretty well. Learning that one man managed the team, and provided a consistent quality level, was encouraging.
However, the book is full of highly misleading statements. For instance, the Alex Ferguson unabashedly tells us that (1) he came from a very poor family, (2) he places a (tremendously) high value on people working hard (putting the hours/time in), and (3) he always liked to hire players from similar backgrounds to him, because he found that they (a) seemed to work harder and (b) he could understand them better; he also says that players from lower income backgrounds were better and easier (for him) to manage. And that he actively discriminated towards people with lower income background, admired them more, etc.
A lot of that sounds like *his* comfort, with a healthy dose of self fulfilling prophecy to boot.
Or the nauseating bit in the "discipline" section on "crossing into what some of the players might have considered their private territory - hairstyles and jewellery." Alex Ferguson explains that he felt comfortable doing so because he "never understood why some players would want to have long hair when they spend so much effort trying to be as fit and quick as possible. Anything, even a few extra locks of hair, just didn't seem sensible."
Yes, anything you disagree with - can't see the reason for - is automatically invalid. Fantastic bit of leadership advice there, Alex.
And so gracious about compromise - "I did manage to persuade [Karel Poborsky] to trim his locks but, even so, they were always too long for my taste." Who cares, Alex? You're doing this because not because it makes him a better player, but because you don't like men with long hair. Acknowledged a few sentences later, when he explains why he couldn't ban tattoos - "it was hard - even for me - to argue that [tattoos] added any extra weight." But you tried anyway, because it wasn't about the instrumental impact (the game) but imposing your personal preferences on them. Charming.
I also rather liked the appalling bit of self forgiveness in talking about his anger issues. "Even though [...] I had a tendency to explode, my temper usually did not have a destructive effect. That was not the case for players who abandoned their self-control and self-discipline on the field [...] it could have bitter consequences for the team."
Yes, Alex Ferguson, the man who explains his anger problems as a "tendency" that was acceptable because there was no "destructive effect", explains why he was justified for lambasting players ("I made no secret about my displeasure...") for losing their temper as well. And note the language - he starts the section explaining that his father, his mother, and he were always very self-disciplined and self-controlled, and then turns around and talks about players "abandoning" those values he prizes so highly. Even while forgiving his own lapses as not a big deal.
I don't get the sense that "owning up to your own faults" is something Alex Ferguson had to deal with very much.
And *worst* he simultaneously says that this focus on discipline is necessary (instrumentally) for effectiveness, and gives stories about how (a) adherence to that led to worse results and (b) he'd do the same thing again! It's incoherent! Consider that (p. 35) he retaliated against 3 ManU players who had "gone out on the town on Boxing Day and were the worse for wear" the day after. Alex made the bright decision to punish them with extra training, *and* dropped the three of them for the team the following day, which "weakened [the team] further!" They proceeded to lose the game, which "cost us a precious three points, and eventually we lost the League to Manchester City on goal difference" and if that hadn't happened "I am positive we would have won by about ten points."
This is meant to be a good thing because "principles are just more important than expediency", even though I'm really not clear what principle was demonstrated. Perhaps good old Alex was showing the players that if they had a hangover Alex would not only punish them for getting drunk, but *also* sabotage the team and blame it on them?
Good show, Alex. Good show.
This is *terrible* for leadership. It might be very interesting if you're a Manchester United fan - or a detractor - and would like to see what the sausage factory looks like from the management office.
Which is why I'm giving it two stars. I'm sure it's a great read about football.
I have not read other books about Sir Alex and I can see some overlap with the content in this book since there are a lot of personal experiences from his time at Manchester United.
I was hesitant to read the epilogue but I am glad I did read (most of) it. The author compares and contrasts Manchester United and Six Alex to some of the Silicon valley tech giants and their founders.
And I was hoping (but not expecting) to learn about Sir Alex as a person rather than just as a management guru and the book did that.