How Sir Alex Ferguson built his theatre of dreams

The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson after 27 years at the helm of arguably the world’s biggest soccer club, Manchester United, has been met with plaudits from all walks of life.

His extraordinary achievements and results speak for themselves; however, it is his success as a leader of the club – on and off the field – which has ultimately defined his stature, one that spreads beyond sporting and geographical boundaries.

When Ferguson came to the club in 1986, it had been living on past glories, a massive club that had been eclipsed by fierce rivals Liverpool. He set about rebuilding the club and restoring its place first in English and then in European football, until Manchester United’s famed Old Trafford home once again lived up to its billing as the Theatre of Dreams.

Of all of the leadership skills that he displays, to me one is most definitive: his ability as a people manager. As a coach (or manager in the UK), Ferguson has to wear many hats, including playing the role of mentor, peacekeeper, motivator, protective father, boss, friend and school teacher.

One of the main reasons for Ferguson’s success is his incredible ability to take these hats on and off at the right moment, and pick his battles in the right scenario, allowing him to handle the big egos, nurture young talent, and get the best out of his elder statesmen.

Looking at sporting organisations in Australian and abroad, you can see that the more successful ones over a longer period of time are those which have leaders – on and off the pitch – encompassing the traits of a good people manager such as Ferguson; contributing to building a club, rather than just a team.

1. Sell the dream

One of Ferguson’s key strengths is his ability to sell his players the dream, get buy-in to the belief that no matter what the competition consists of, to trust in him is to trust in a positive outcome. Over the years, Ferguson has faced competition from clubs purchased by multi-billionaires (Manchester City, Chelsea) yet he has been able to maintain his very best players and continue winning. How? By being able to exude confidence, an ability that helped him to keep star players such as Wayne Rooney, who for a brief moment, lost sight of the dream.

2. Don’t burn your bridges

Everyone has wanted to do it at some point or another, manage out an employee or tell the boss where to stick his job. However, to take a page out of Ferguson’s book is to treat all players with respect. Even in cases where he has sold players against their wishes – such as David Beckham or Michael Owen – these players continue to talk about Ferguson with nothing but warmth and gratitude, which is a great help when trying to recruit the very best players on the market.

3. Learn to adapt

Do you speak to your mother the same way that you speak to your best mate? Obviously not. Ferguson’s uncanny ability to adapt to a situation, to change his approach based on who he is talking to, whether it be sponsors, fans, players, management or government officials, ultimately earns him the respect of many different stakeholders within the sports industry. An example of this is his response to the takeover of the club by the Glazer family – a controversial issue and potential Pandora’s box which he was able to successfully sidestep.

4. Demand respect

It can be very easy to mistake niceness for weakness, and achieving a happy balance between being seen as a father figure, and ultimately someone who doesn’t take sh*t, therefore, is an extremely difficult predicament – one that Ferguson was able to pull off with aplomb. His infamous “hairdryer treatment” of players shows his ability to demand respect by setting the expectation that if you don’t perform, don’t put in the hard yards, or step out of line, you will be dealt with. Harshly.

5. Be genuine

Being genuine is one of the most important factors in leadership and one which can affect all of the above traits. This is a trait that Ferguson is known for the world over. It’s no use selling someone your dream, maintaining a relationship, looking to adapt to different people and situations or giving someone the hairdryer treatment if it doesn’t come from a genuine place. People can pick up on fakeness, and lose their belief in everything you say you are about if they don’t believe it to be true.

After all, if you don’t believe, why should they?

Nic Ferraro is the founder and managing director of Sports Business Insider, the leading source of news, analysis and opinion on the business side of sports. 

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