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What Managers Can Learn From the World’s Best Coach


If you’re not a soccer fan, you might know the name Alex Ferguson, but not fully realize his greatness. He’s the best coach of any sport of the last 20 years. His unique ability to get the most of his employees should be studied by all managers.

(Photo Credit: Andrea Santorati/Flickr)

Let’s quickly go over Ferguson’s credentials.

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After a successful playing career, scoring 171 goals in 317 matches, the Scotsman started his managerial career in his home country, winning four Scottish League titles from 1974 to 1986. Then he went to Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world, and won 38 trophies in 26 years, including 13 Premier League championships and two European titles. In short, if he created one, Ferguson might have most impressive LinkedIn profile ever.

The Harvard Business Review studied Ferguson, trying to find out what separated him from his managerial peers. They discovered a man who wasn’t just a soccer genius, but also a people genius. It wasn’t that he demanded love or fear from his players; he demanded respect.

“The main central point of the discussion [with the Harvard Business Review] was love and hate,” Ferguson told Charlie Rose earlier this month. “Do the players love me or, do they hate me, or was there a balance? Of course there was also many different opinions about that, but the central thing to it all was respect. That was always looked for — respect.”

One of his best players during his tenure was tenacious midfielder Roy Keane. The two aren’t currently on the best of terms, but Keane still respects his former manager.

“We just never wanted to let him down,” Keane said after Ferguson retired. “He always knew the right buttons to push. After a big loss, it wasn’t the hair dryer (yelling) that worried me, it was when the manager was quiet and we felt as players that we had let him down. I think the great managers will instill that in their players.”

Ferguson recently released his autobiography and a central theme is the importance of control. If a manager loses control, which is rooted in respect, he or she is useless, Ferguson argues.

In the book, Ferguson tells the story of when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair came to him for advice. He was having trouble with one of his close allies, Gordon Brown. Blair asked Ferguson what he would do if his best player wouldn’t do what he wanted.

“My answer was that the most important thing is control. The minute they threaten your control, you have to get rid of them,” Ferguson said.

Blair didn’t get rid of Brown, who would eventually succeed Blair as prime minister.

Though Ferguson was controlling, it didn’t mean he was stuck in his ways. The longevity of his success can be attributed to his ability to adapt. He made sure to always ask himself how he could improve, what others were doing, and how could he do it better than all of them.

“I always say that to adapt, you only adapt if it is going to give you at least 1 percent improvement, and progress, and it’s always the sensible way to look at it,” Ferguson said in the Rose interview. “Every year at United we adapted to different things all the time. It’s quite amazing.”

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Do you think Ferguson’s soccer management style can translate to the office? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Patrick Creaven
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