Leadership Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson


The main idea of writing this article is to compare the frames of Organizational Behavior & the Principles of Management, studied at Jagdish Sheth School of Management (Formerly IFIM Business School), with the style of one of the best football managers ever, Sir Alex Ferguson. The comparison is as follows:

Picture Courtesy: Business Insider

Scientific Management:

Scientific Management is a theory that synthesizes and analyzes workflows. Economic efficiency, and especially labor productivity, are the main objectives that it aims to improve. It was one of the earliest efforts to appertain science to the engineering of processes to management. This theory of Frederick Winslow Taylor, sometimes also known as Taylorism, is applicable even today.

One of the all-time greatest football managers, Sir Alex Ferguson, also used some concepts of Scientific management. His leadership style can be defined as Autocratic. He was rational, strategic, and systematic (Elberse and Ferguson, 2013). Quotes from his interview with Prof. Anita Elberse at Harvard Business School resonate the same: “We identified three levels of players: those 30 and older, those roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in. The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards that the older ones had set.” (Elberse and Ferguson, 2013) and performance: “Every training session was about quality. We didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, speed — a high level of performance.” (Elberse and Ferguson, 2013). There was a clear split between the responsibilities of the manager and football players (workers): “Players must recognize that as the manager, you have the status to control events. You can complicate your life in many ways by asking, Oh, I wonder if the players like me? If I did my job well, the players would respect me, and that is all you need.” (Elberse and Ferguson, 2013).

Since every theory has limitations, the drawbacks of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor are as follows:

  • Unfitting for small firms
  • Discrimination amongst workers
  • Monotony & Narrow View
  • Loss of jobs
  • Opposition by trade unions
  • Insistence on economic needs
  • No best way of doing work.

When Sir Alex Ferguson had players that did not fit into the system of the club, those players were made to or voluntarily left the club. Players like Jaap Stam and David Beckham, who could have contributed much more to Manchester United had to leave because of their very public conflict with the strict frames established by Sir Alex. “After a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal in February 2003, Ferguson kicked a boot which flew towards Beckham and struck him just about his left eye. It marked the beginning of the end of Beckham’s United career” (McGowan, 2013).

Human Relations Theory:

It states how motivational theory welds with human relations in management. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that five basic needs (self-actualization, esteem, love & belonging, safety, and physiological) benefit an employee’s work by acting as motivating factors. It is because of the employee’s motivation to ensure the most important of these individual needs are meeting. Unlike Scientific Management, workers do not get treated as a part of the machinery.

As a manager at Manchester United, during his last decade, he realized that some players needed to be treated and motivated differently. This made him take some steps from Scientific Management towards the Human Relations Theory.

Picture Credit: Standard.co.uk

When he signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting CP, he realized the potential Ronaldo had and the talent that exceeded any other players he ever coached at Manchester United. Ferguson nurtured Ronaldo unlike any other player, and also sometimes forgave him for his growing high-profile image (expensive lifestyle, boastful cars, public camaraderie), which were not acceptable for Beckham during his tenure at United. Sir Alex understood Ronaldo’s desire to become the greatest football player ever, and hence coached him in a style that corresponded with that wish. He was given more freedom on the pitch than any other player because Ferguson knew that Ronaldo was capable of doing extraordinary things that could at any moment, change the direction of the game.

But again, like any other Portuguese and Spanish players, Ronaldo dreamt of playing for the biggest club in the world, which for him was Real Madrid.

If we look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s career, different aspects of different organizational behavior were used by him to manage Manchester United for over 26 years. He was appointed in 1986 and went on to win 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, and 2 UEFA Champions League titles.

 Professional football is more than a sport and is a continually developing industry. The English Premier League for a fact can be used to dive deeper to conduct PESTEL analysis for identifying all the factors that affect the industry and how it has shaped the current state of football. Even Porter’s five forces can be used to examine the unique relationships of the sport.

But here, employing the frames of Principles of Management & Organizational Behavior to solve issues at Manchester United was probably why Sir Alex Ferguson was so successful at the club.

Hence, every leader who hopes to be successful should use Organizational Behavior frames, as it can prove to be a useful tool.

The author, Aditya Gupta is a student of PGDM 2020-22 batch of Jagdish Sheth School of Management, and very passionate about soccer.

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