Why was Alex Ferguson so successful?
So we recognise that Alex has been an inspirational leader in the football world for the past 30 years or more, winning numerous titles with Aberdeen and Manchester United. So many managers have come and gone in this time, many unsuccessful. So is there something that Ferguson happens to be good at? While he may not have realised the strength of its impact, his leadership had a direct impact on the reactions and performance levels of his players.
There is lots of research and posts on leadership style and its effect on group success. "Transformational Leadership" - a phrase first coined by James Downtown in 1973 has been proven scientifically to be the best and most effective type of leadership across business, education and sport. Transformational Leadership is known to empower rather than control followers. Such leaders inspire, develop and challenge followers (Yukl, 2006) by acting as role models, showing concern for followers and transcending their own self interest for the overall betterment of the group.
Such leaders are known to inspire, through formulating a vision, challenging followers to reach realistic goals, encouraging ownership and involvement by stimulating them intellectually to solve old problems in new ways. Such leadership has been shown to be associated with increases in motivation and performance (Charbonneau, Barling & Kelloway, 2001; Ruwold 2006) and group cohesion (Callow, Smith, Hardy, Arthur & Hardy 2009).
A scientifically validated measure (Transformation Leadership Inventory for Sport (DTLI), Callow et al, (2009)) identifies seven leadership behaviours that help performance, six of which are considered transformational in nature.
This article looks at how Sir Alex drove success and changed the culture of Manchester United from a "transformational leadership" perspective - transforming them from a sleeping giant into one of the biggest and most successful clubs in the world.
The following characteristics are those of a transformational leader!
Inspirational Motivation (where leaders inspire followers with their vision for the future).
Sir Alex had to contend with a very poor drink culture at the club among the players when he got there. They were talented players who wanted success but some weren't prepared to or were unable to take the actions that would get them there. He tried to set the high standards for those established players to follow and those who didn't (Paul McGrath & Norman Whiteside for example) were moved on. In the initial years, he revolutionised the youth system at Manchester Utd, imbuing the youth players with a willingness to work extremely hard regarding fitness and skill development – so much so that in the early nineties he was able to bring in the likes of David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ben Thornley straight from the youth team. The following year he could add the likes of Phil Neville and Keith Gillespie.
Fostering Acceptance of Group Goals (where leaders incorporate followers in the devising of, accepting of and striving towards a common agreed goal)
Throughout his time at Manchester United, we can think of the leaders he had - Robson, Hughes, Bruce, Schmeichel, Cantona, Keane, Scholes, Neville - the list is endless. Ferguson always gave high priority to the views of the senior players. He knew that once he could manage them, he could manage the dressing room. He used the senior players to set a culture of change around the club that would see them climb to the very top of European football. Once the senior players were right, it was easy to bring in the young players that he knew had the right work ethic and application to foster a winning culture as they were immersed in it from a young age. Their success wouldnt have happened on such a continuous basis without the players being invested in the culture, driving standards to new levels on a continuous basis.
Individual Consideration (where leaders show concern for followers individualistic needs)
While it was mentioned that the drinkers were weeded out, he was still able to identify that Bryan Robson was a real leader on the pitch and one he could not do without in his earlier years at the club. While there was one rule for the majority, he could identify that he needed Robson more than he needed to weed him out for a few nights out. Others with substance misuse or gambling issues were given every chance to find their way out of trouble as Ferguson sought to support many through various addictions as they developed from boys to men. All was kept private and in-house which further endeared him to the people at the club. If it didn't work out, they were moved on but most if not all left on very good terms.
He was known to meet and greet all parents of youth players on their arrival at the club and ensure they would be looked after. Some who were homesick in their early months were often sent home to their parents for a week or two at the cost of the club. He understood the importance that everyone was different and he took each situation on its own merits.
When Eric Cantona did his Kung Fu style kick at West Ham and got suspended for numerous months, Sir Alex could have had good reason to move him on. He saw it differently - he knew the taunting and abuse he received from opposition on daily basis. He understood. He put his arm around him and Cantona repaid him in spades on his return at Anfield when he scored a fantastic goal as Man Utd went on to capture the league. Ferguson had his back and Cantona knew it!
High Performance Expectations (where leaders promote excellence and performance criteria for followers in the attainment of set goals)
Alex would have set out a level of expectation regarding performance and training. Standards were high and the players knew it. As discussed previously, he did this initially by weeding out the majority of the drinkers at the club, while giving a successful youth development programme graduates their chance to shine under the tutelage of senior players acting in the best interests of the team and club. He was one of the first premiership managers to engage with sport and performance science on a consistent basis and he was well ahead of the curve on this front. Mick Clegg ran a mandatory S&C programme from the Cliff training ground and when they moved on to their plush new training facility in Carrington, yoga, pilates and GPS monitoring was added to the menu for players seeking to improve their athleticism or maintain a body to play into their late thirties and early forties as we saw with Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs.
Intellectual Stimulation (where coach challenges players to assess their methods and how to improve them)
Little do we know about the interactions between Sir Alex and his players but there was a tendency for players to improve when they went to Man Utd at that period of time. Those who left often regretted it and went downhill afterwards. Only the best coaches were recruited, sometimes from within the system. Ferguson was known for asking questions and engaging with players. He got them to think out solutions rather than telling them the answers. He was an engaging person with outside interests in horses and business and encourage players to do the same. He knew there was more to life than the football merry go round and openly stated that he was happy to see players settle down and have kids as he knew they then had interests outside of football.
Appropriate Role Modelling (where leaders lead by example in the way they conduct themselves and live their lives in the manner that they would like their followers to do).
In his early years, Alex was well known for participating in some of the 5 a side sessions on the training field. He kept himself in good condition physically and as Gary Neville recently alluded to, he was always very personable, whether you were on the team, a youth team player or a tea lady at the training ground. He made it his business to know the name of every member of staff at the club and learned about their families. He knew that if he could create a family atmosphere around the club, that it would be a happy place to be! He demanded the same of his players and insisted that all players call all cleaning and canteen staff by their first name. He was known to be very humorous at times and this endeared him to everyone around him as you can see from video clip above during one of his final games as Man Utd boss.
However, as we all know, he knew when to be serious and those that demonstrated themselves to be above their station displaying large ego were quickly reprimanded. In fact he once said that he knew he had a player when they had the same manner around the first team as they did when they left their mammy's kitchen at fifteen years of age.
The research also includes one transactional behaviour that is important in getting the most out of a sporting group!
Contingent Reward Leadership (where leaders trade praise or recognition for desirable behaviours)
Alex was well known for always backing and praising his players in public even if they made a mistake and never dissed them in public, often to the annoyance of the media. Everything that needed to be said could be said in private and the players respected that. He obviously was able to get the most from his players. They knew he had their back and they gave as much as they could in return!
So basically, Alex has mastered these behaviours of his own accord. In my opinion, others also appear to have these credentials and in Pep Guadiola, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have benefited.
In a sport psychology context in Ireland, the GAA inter-county managerial merry go round, borne of player unrest and unhappiness is a clear indication of poor managerial acumen among many inter county managers. More successful managers (Mickey Harte, Brian Cody, Jim Gavin and Jim McGuinness albeit with quality players) have been proven to be very influential and have been very successful recently. It would be generally accepted that they would also have adhered to these performance psychology principles and leadership characteristics during their time in charge.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport