Sir Alex Ferguson: The retirement of a ‘great’ leader?

Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United F.C.The word ‘great’ has been used frequently over the last 24 hours following the announcement of the retirement of one of the most successful managers in English and arguably world football, Sir Alex Ferguson. Other managers, former players and fans from Manchester United and other clubs have been queuing up to pay their respects to the manager that has brought so much success to the ‘red half of Manchester’.

The statistics speak for themselves. 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups and 2 Champions Leagues in 27 seasons (Fordyce, 2013) is a record that may never be passed again. The level of his success has led to considerable reflection over what made him a great manager.

We can see classic approaches to understanding leadership and management at work here. Many of the accounts have taken on the ‘Great Man theory’ approach (see pages 378-380 of the textbook) where they seek to understand what made Ferguson such a great manager. Some have put it down to his Glasgow roots (Crick, 2013) as the fiery Scot’s personality was forged through the hard work of the ship-building community (Barclay, 2011). These accounts seek to understand, through Ferguson’s childhood and early experiences, what makes him into the manager that he became. Ferguson is an unusually successful manager so these approaches seek to understand what made him great, so that others may be can learn from them and even emulate them.

Trait theory (also see pages 378-380 of the textbook) has also been used to understand the characteristics that divide him from less successful managers (e.g. Winter, 2011). He is said to be “loyal, realistic, honest and driven” (King, 2013). His drive to win and hunger for more success and hard work are features that stand out prominently (Winter, 2011). When assessing what is needed for his successor, such traits are being widely cited as critical (King, 2013).

Other accounts have focused more on how he behaves and the impact that he has had on his players. He is often seen as autocratic (Jones, 2012) being highly demanding of his players and staff. He is presented as fiery, aggressive and dominating character (Jones, 2012; Hughes, 2013) who left his players with little doubt of his views. He stated that when he started he was very aggressive to players (Elberse and Dye, 2012), particularly with his famous ‘hairdryer treatment’ of shouting at the players (Guardian, 2012).  In one infamous incident Ferguson is said to have kicked a boot which hit David Beckham in the head (Telegraph, 2011). Whether it was intended or not is disputed, but it was Beckman, one of the most successful players of his era, who left rather than Ferguson.

However as times have changed, with increased money coming into football the nature of players has changed, and with it his management style (Elberse and Dye, 2012). He states that these modern millionaire players are more fragile and he has had to adapt how he works to deal with them. he has also commented the need for senstivity with cross-cultural differences in a multi-national team (see textbook page 503), even taking into account that people from different cultures may be used to eating and sleeping at different times (BBC Sport, 2011). We can see at work here a form of situational leadership. One aspect of Ferguson’s longevity is his ability to adapt and work in different styles with different types of players and staff (see pages 388-390 on situational leadership in the textbook).

Yet for all the lauding of Ferguson as a manager it is quite obvious that he has not been able to do this alone. As football managers are fond of saying (particularly when they have lost) they can prepare the players as well as they can but it is the players that ‘cross the white line’  and actually play the game. The followers, in this case the players, as and we will see the staff, play a highly significant role in the success, and so we need to pay attention to the importance of followership (see pages 394-396 in the textbook). For all the success that Ferguson has brought, the impact of those around him should not be underestimated.

Indeed, from a business point of view it is interesting how little impact his departure made on the share price, at first falling 5% and then by the end of the day 1.76% down (Guardian, 2013). For such a significant figure in the club who has brought so much success it is interesting how limited an impact this is. Yet on closure examination whilst he is clearly a highly influential figure he is supported by a large coaching team including youth development. In his departing statement Ferguson claimed he had left the organization in good shape, and the wide range of staff involved at all levels indicates this. In an interview with the BBC (Walker, 2013) he states the importance of the backroom staff whose work at all levels. Indeed the role of the manager has changed dramatically over the last 27 years. No longer can one individual do everything from training the players, scouting and selecting new players or contract negotiations. The size of modern day football clubs has become too big and the amount of money too large for this to be feasible for one individual.

As the economist and sports management academic Stefan Szymanski of University of Michigan School of Kinesiology states (BBC Today 2013) this is an ‘end of an era … of the cult of the manager where managers ran the club and told the directors what they were going to do’. He states that the money entering football has meant this option is ‘no longer viable’ and what we are seeing now is bigger management teams and the need for a more consensus based form of management. Evoking post-heroic leadership ideas (see pages 394-398 of the textbook) Professor Szymanski states that as with business more widely we need to question ‘how much does the guy [sic] at the top really matter’ as there are lots of decision makers throughout the organization we shouldn’t ‘overstate the role of a manager’ and their significance. He states in his research managers do not make as much of a difference as they claim to, Ferguson is a rare example. The type of manager that Ferguson was who ran so much of it themselves we are unlikely to see again. Szymanski states that it is more a type of distributive leadership.

So what do we learn from Ferguson and what can you apply to your own career? As we know from leadership theory it is often too simplistic to apply a model that has worked for one individual and learn lessons for everyone else (as Great Man theory tries). Sport is a fairly unique environment and few managers would effectively be able to use the ‘hairdryer treatment’ in most modern organizations. However his hard work, dedication and will to win certainly stand out. So too does his desire to learn. In one incident he recounted to the Harvard Business School he describes attending opera, which he had never done before, and learning from the co-ordination and teamwork he saw involved. It is this ability to take experiences from all aspects of his life and apply them to his work which shows the ability to keep developing.

For more about Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership style in his own words, and how it has changed over his career, see this in-depth interview with Gordon Burns of BBC Northwest Tonight


Barclay, P (2011) Football – Bloody Hell!: The Biography of Alex Ferguson, Yellow Jersey, London

BBC Sport. 2011. ‘In-depth interview – Sir Alex Ferguson on TV, youth policy, hairdryers and more,’ available at

BBC Today Programme (2013), 9th May 2013, available at

Crick, M (2013) Sir Alex Ferguson: The pride of Govan never lost touch with his roots, The Times, 9th May 2013, available at

Elberse, A and Dye, T (2013) “Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United.” Harvard Business School Case 513-051, September 2012

Fordyce, T (2013) Sir Alex Ferguson: Man Utd reign puts him among sporting greats, BBC News, 9th May 2013, available at

Guardian (2012) Sir Alex Ferguson reveals secrets of his success to Harvard academics, The Guardian, available at, 19th December 2012

Guardian (2013) Manchester United shares dip, then recover after Ferguson news, 8th May 2013,

Hughes, R (2013) Ferguson’s Move Shakes Soccer, and Business, 8th May 2013, available at

Jackson, J and Hunter, A (2013)

Jones, D (2012)

King, D (2013)

Telegraph (2011)

Winter, H (2011)


One thought on “Sir Alex Ferguson: The retirement of a ‘great’ leader?

  1. I like this and hope it will encourage students to think and engage with the wider issues rather than just compartmentalising things eg we’ve ‘done’ leadership but we don’t have a clue how the theory relates to practice

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