Leading: Learning From Life And My Years At Manchester United

Authors: Alex Ferguson & Michael Moritz
Publisher: Hachette Books

History is written by the victors, Winston Churchill said. That famous quote would be an apt description of Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest book, Leading.

Co-authored with venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz, this is Ferguson’s version of history – his life and his time at Manchester United.

While his status as the greatest British football club manager of all time is never in doubt, Ferguson has become notorious for having a selective memory and holding grudges against people who have slighted him. These people – for example, former United captain Roy Keane and former United assistant manager Brian Kidd – are given short shrift in this book.

Leading came about because Ferguson was asked to give a series of lectures at Harvard Business School for its strategic marketing in creative industries course. A huge achievement considering that Ferguson left school at 16. Yet, by all accounts, his stint at Harvard was a resounding success and, after talks with Moritz, the two men decided to write the book and base it on the lectures and Ferguson’s management philosophy.

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Leading, therefore, is structured around the skills that Ferguson values most highly: discipline, control, teamwork and motivation. It also addresses subjects that are less obvious but no less important when seeking success: delegation, data analysis, and dealing with failure.

Hardcore Red Devil fans will be somewhat disappointed with the book. The Manchester United theme runs consistently throughout the book – indeed, Ferguson continuously alludes to his leadership techniques at the club – but this is not a story about the football club. In essence, Leading is a guide to leadership from a manager who spent 38 years in management, winning an astonishing 49 trophies, and helping to grow United into one of the biggest brands in the world.

I would recommend My Autobiography, Ferguson’s 2013 book on his early years, or his earlier work, Managing My Life, written after the club’s Treble year in 1999 (when it won the English Premier League, F.A. Cup and European Club Champions Cup in one season).

So, should you get a copy of Leading? The answer is yes. Even if you’re not a United Fan. It may not have the breezy, easy-reading style of his previous books (I’m sure Moritz’s input had something to do with this!), but it is chock-full of anecdotes and lessons that can be applied by anyone.

A constant theme is the Scot’s working-class background and the strong Protestant work ethic that comes with it. I was struck by this tremendous work ethic and how much Ferguson values this above all other traits in his staff, players and friends. A notable example of this is Ferguson’s recollection of how he used to end talks with the team after a setback. He would remind his players: “The minute that we don’t work harder than the other team, we’ll not be Manchester United.”

Probably the most controversial part of Leading is the chapter on “Excellence”. Ferguson ventures that in his 26-year career at Old Trafford, he would classify as world-class only four of his players: Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes. This hasn’t gone down well with United fans who believe players like Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy should be included in this category.

This, it should be said, is typical Ferguson. He’s not one for sentiment – the story of how he dropped then captain Robson from the 1994 F.A. Cup-winning squad is instructive of how managers have to make the tough, unpopular decisions.

Moments of warmth do shine through, though, despite the tough guy persona. There’s a nice personal touch at the end of the book when Ferguson shares a lovely note he wrote to Cantona after the great man retired from football.