Alex Massie: Successful people talk a good game

So, Sir Alex Ferguson is off to Harvard University where he will lecture on the “secrets” of leadership.

Sir Alex Fergusons successful style of leadership is not something that can be learned, in business, politics or sport. Picture: Getty
Sir Alex Fergusons successful style of leadership is not something that can be learned, in business, politics or sport. Picture: Getty

And why not? After a quarter of a century building the world’s biggest football club, the world’s most prestigious university must seem one of the few places large enough for Fergie.

His appointment is more than a gimmick. It is a declaration of faith in the Cult of Leadership. Surely we can learn something from Ferguson’s unrivalled success. Leadership, we think, can be learned. Except it can’t. Not really. It is not, whether in sport, business or politics, a mathematical algorithm that can be applied universally.

Ferguson was an emperor at Manchester United. His word was law. Even in football, however, Fergie was one of the last of a dying breed: the manager who ran everything.

But football is not everything. It is not even very much like anything else. The objective is clear (win) and so is the means to that objective (scoring goals). It is a small, contained universe in which options, in terms of system or personnel, are relatively limited. It is also governed by agreed-upon rules. Managers can make a difference but only at the margin. And even large football clubs are (relatively) small businesses.


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Because football’s market is comparatively efficient most of the time most results can be predicted by payroll. That is, the team with the better players (who are paid more) will win. Individual fixtures are prone to randomness – an own-goal, a refereeing mistake, an improbable act of genius – but over time the natural order is reasserted.

But in business having the best product is no guarantee of success. Betamax was better than VHS, Apple computers were more elegant than those powered by Microsoft. The “inferior” product won. Moreover, what does “success” even mean? In football, the answer is obvious. In life – even in business – less so.

Some of the most successful companies are the least profit-driven. That is, profit is the consequence of customer satisfaction, not the primary objective. John Lewis is one example; Wal-Mart another. A sign hung above Bear Stearns’ trading floor boasted: “Let’s make nothing but money”. Then they went bust, unloved and unmourned. The modern business world’s focus on “shareholder value” often proves counter-productive. It promotes short-term thinking at the expense of long-term stability (and profit).

The Cult of Leadership prompts hubris too. Fred Goodwin was once held up as a model chief executive (and subject of a glowing Harvard Business School case study). RBS would make its takeover of ABN-Amro “work” because it had made previous deals work. Unlike a Roman general celebrating a triumph, Goodwin lacked a slave to whisper in his ear, reminding him he was mortal too.


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If this is true of business it is even more true of politics. Data-crunching – the current fad – is often useful but it is better at illuminating problems than pointing to solutions. As the economist John Kay has put it: “Mostly, we solve problems obliquely. Our approaches are iterative and adaptive. We make our choices from a limited range of options. Our knowledge of the relevant information and of what information is relevant, is imperfect.”

Planning can only take you so far. Grand designs are ruined by the laws of unintended consequence. Politics, being like life, is muddled and complicated. Progress in one area comes at a price elsewhere. Politics is the business of adapting to unforeseen circumstances.

Retired statesmen can, like Ferguson, make a comfortable living “explaining” the secrets of leadership. It is all bogus. They are good at telling us what they did, less good at explaining how. Moreover, expertise in one area does not necessarily translate to excellence in another. The crooked timber of humanity resists straightening. Or, as the screenwriter William Goldman put it: “Nobody knows anything.”

Look at Manchester United. Alex Ferguson anointed David Moyes as his successor because Moyes reminded Ferguson of himself. Even great leaders have their blind spots.