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What We Learn from Sir Alex Ferguson

By Shlomo  Maital


Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has just announced his retirement, after 27 years at the helm of the great British football team.  Ferguson is 71.

   What can we learn from his career, and unparalleled success (48 titles, including 2 European championships, 13 British championships, 5 English cups, 4 English league cups, 3 Scottish championships, 4 Scottish cups, 1 Scottish league cup, …and more)?   

    What odds would you have given that the following manager would become the great football coach in history?

  *  He was born in poverty, son of a plasterer’s helper in the shipbuilding industry;

* as a player, he was unsuccessful,  signed by Rangers but dumped when he failed to mark Celtic captain Billy McNeill in the Cup final;

* he began to manage at age 32, at St. Mirren, who sacked him after four years because he ‘intimidated his office secretary’;  Ferguson had “no managerial ability”, said St. Mirren Chairman Willie Todd. 

      What I learn from Sir Alex is the enormous importance of two key qualities:  Fierce stubborn persistence, and the ability to learn continually, especially from failure.  His persistence, he may have gained from his lower-working-class Scottish origins.  According to Rob Hughes, Global New York Times soccer writer, perhaps the best of his kind, Sir Alex rebuilt Manchester United’s team five times, each time successfully, often building on local home-grown talent from the youth organization.  He could have moved on to another club. Instead he stayed and rebuilt.     

    I had the privilege of bringing a group of managers to Manchester United on a benchmarking trip.  We heard from the CEO, toured the amazing facility, and learned why Manchester United, together with Real Madrid, is valued at $3.1 b., with about $500 m. in annual revenues.   It is a superbly managed business, where everything runs like clockwork, and is owned by the Glazer family, Americans.  Unlike the Russian and Arabian oligarchs who own a third of the English Premier League clubs, the Glazers more or less keep their hands off ManU operations.   

     What I learn from Sir Alex is the life lesson of  simply not giving up,  facing reality, learning from failure and building it into success.  Ferguson had his eye on Dutch striker Robin Van Persie (Arsenal),  and lured him to ManUnited despite more lucrative offers. Von Persie’s goals brought ManU the league title this year.  (He scored three in the first half of the recent game against Aston Villa; the second goal was ‘the goal of the century’, a cannon-shot volley, according to Sir Alex). 

    Sir Alex teaches us, do what you love doing with passion and stubborn stick-to-it-iveness, pick yourself up after failure, be loyal,  always always learn,  and try again, and again, and again…and if you do it long enough, you too will be the greatest in the world at what you do, like Sir Alex.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital