‘Leading’ Sir Alex Ferguson’s book, & my take on it.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s book is one of the best books I have ever read. It is particularly appealing for those that want to learn more about leadership and team culture, but there is so much more to take out of it than from just those 2 areas, irrespective of whether you are working in or are from a sporting background.

Here are some of the points that really stood out for me, ‘My Take Home Messages’ (MTHM). Hopefully you will find these beneficial also.


Page 17: Shortly after arriving at Aberdeen, Archie (assistant coach) sat me down and asked me why I had hired him. The question perplexed me, until he explained that he nothing to do since I insisted on doing everything. He was very insistent. Archie told me that I shouldn’t be conducting the training sessions but, instead, should be on the sidelines watching and supervising. I wasn’t sure that I should follow this advice because I thought it would hamper my control of the sessions. But when I told Archie I wanted to mull over it, he was insistent.


So, somewhat reluctantly, I bowed to his wishes and thought it took me a bit of time to understand you can see a lot more when you are not in the thick of things, it was the most important decision I ever made about the way I managed and led. When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that comes as surprises- and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised. If you are in the middle of a training session, with a whistle in your mouth, your entire focus is on the ball. When I stepped back and watched from the side-lines, my field of view was widened and I could absorb the whole session, as well as pick up on players’ moods, energy and habits. This was one of the most valuable lessons of my career, and I’m glad that I received it more than 30 years ago. Archie’s observation was the making of me.


MTHM: This comes from his chapter ‘Watching’, and was one of the most important chapters I read. To say it was the most important decision he ever made, should not be taken lightly. No one likes to be micromanaged, people like to have responsibility and people get caught up in trying to be perfectionists. This is also too common with business owners, who never allow their managers ‘to manage’. They never allow them to grow and the manager can become disenchanted and then leave. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and see where and how you can improve your team, drill, business, project or whatever it may be.


Page 38: Since both my parents worked their fingers to the bone, I somehow just absorbed the idea the only way I was going to improve my life was to work very hard. It was baked into my marrow. I was incapable of coasting and have always been irritated by people who frittered away natural talents because they were not prepared to put in the hours.

MTHM: Such a common sight in professional sports and so sad. Players with buckets of talent but a disappointing work ethic that doesn’t match. This is the number 1 reason players don’t reach their POTENTIAL or can’t maintain their position at the top.


Page 42: If I had to choose between someone who had great talent but was short on grit and desire, and another player who was good but had great determination and drive, I would always prefer the latter


Page 42: They need to work relentlessly (World’s best footballers), not just because that’s what is required to get to the top, but because there is always someone eager to take their place in the squad.


MTHM: This simply reinforces the above message. Determination over talent any day of the week. The more work someone is willing to put in, the less willing they are to give up or let go of that dream. Too many players after making great achievements think they don’t need to keep working. They all get found out.


Page 47: For me drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormour powers of concerntration and a refusal to admit defeat… One player’s drive can have an enormous affect on a team- a winning drive is like a magical potion that can spread from one person to another.


MTHM: Ferguson has used the term ‘magical potion’, such is his inability to put it into more concrete words. This drive is infectious, and those within a squad who don’t do share this drive can be as detrimental to a squad as how benefcial a driven player or employee can be to a team or company environment. If you can get a couple of these driven players within your squad, they are your true ‘leaders’, it can do wonders for your culture. When people see others putting in the hard work and raising standarsd and expectations, it has an infectious effect and motivates them to do the same, so as not to let their fellow brothers down, if they aren’t selfish individuals. All of the successful teams I have been a part of have had this. Sometimes getting the players to maintain this drive can be tough, especially after achieving success.


Page 65: The players came to understand my values, and the older players automatically transmitted these values to the younger players or new signings.


MTHM: Mould the senior players or employees. Tell them what is expected of them and the club or company, and give them the power to maintain these within the squad or company. If they aren’t willing to do this, or just aren’t up to it, move them on or demote them. All of the good managers and coaches do this. This way the standards are driven from within and the coach/manager doesn’t always have to play the disciplinarian. I recommend reading James Kerr’s ‘Legacy’, which goes into depth about this topic with the All Blacks.


Page 66: There were plenty of times when Lady Luck blew in our direction- it happens all the time in football. Yet preparation had a lot more to with our success than a few fortunate breaks.


MTHM: It’s very rare for anyone in successful sporting organisation to admit to a degree of luck, let alone admit it happens all the time. The best leaders are always the best prepared, it brings clarity to what it is that it to be achieved and how, which builds confidence.


Page 72: In football, just like in other activities, the best-laid plans sometimes don’t work and improvisation is required. It actually happens on a fairly regularly basis.


MTHM: I cant stand people that don’t have plans. They lack vision and walk around aimlessly with no sense of purpose or idea of what they want. People think that if you have a plan it cant be changed. A plan again breeds clarity and confidence. The military live by this belief and will tell you that a plan can be changed within seconds, and can be changed any amount of times.

Page 102: As hard as I worked on my leadership skills, and as much as I tried to influence every aspect of United’s success on the field, at kick off on match day things moved beyond my control. On the field, the person responsible for making sure the 11 players acted as a team was the captain… I only ever wanted a leader, rather than someone who might look good on top of a cake.


MTHM: A ‘leader’ is much more inspiring and therefore valuable to a team, any team, than simply a captain. Coaches and managers business owners need to realise also that it simply isn’t possible to be in control of everything. Accept that.


Page 118: You don’t get the best out of people by hitting them with an irod rod. You do so by gaining their respect, getting them accustomed to triumphs and convincing them that they are capable of improving their performance… It turns out the 2 most important words in the English language are “Well done”. Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 percent of performance.

MTHM: Ferguson does actually go on to say that he is more than capable of using the iron rod when needed, and his players know that, but constantly hitting them with it won’t motivate them. Also, praise is any of the most underused and underestimated tools in getting the most out of people. We all want acknowledgement and recognition. Aim to to this on a ration of at least 4-1 when compared with ‘cracking the whip’.


Page 119: Some managers try to be popular with the players and become one of the boys. It never works. As a leader. You don’t need to be loved, though it is useful, on occasion, to be feared. But most of all, you need to be respected.

MTHM: Too often I’ve seen coaches try to be chummy with players. They can see right through that and they don’t respect that. Players wants sincerity and their coaches to be genuine, if they want to reach their potential and be the best they can be. If you’re chummy, it makes it harder to make the tough decisions.

Page 120:

My immediate predecessor at United, Roy Atkinson, had a similar issue… He chose to fraternise with the players. It just doesn’t work. A leader is not one of the boys… You do not get too attached to people who work for you.


MTHM: Don’t get too chummy with the players, it makes it harder to crack the whip or make tough decisions such as dropping them when you’re too close,Ferguson reinforced this point several times throughout the book. Keep it a professional relationship, for the benefit of the team. Be personable and professional.


Page 178:

For me, that whole approach to life could be boiled down to the 101 seconds of injury time it too United to turn what had looked like a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final into a 2-1 victory… I played the DVD of the last three minutes of the 1999 game to emphasise to the players the importance of never, ever capitulating.



Not only should we be instilling and trying to propagate the belief to win no matter the scenario or situation we find ourselves in, within our players or staff, we must reinforce that constantly. Using the video was a great way to reinforce to his players that there’s a good chance that they could find themselves in that situation again, prepare for that mentally so that it is not daunting, should it occur.


Page 191:

Football is one of those subjects in which everyone is an expert even if their knowledge of the game couldn’t fill a thimble. It’s like other forms of entertainment or creative endeavour, where it’s easier to be critic than a practitioner.


MTHM: So many people, especially in regard to professional sports want to give advice. But you’ve got to be mindful of what exactly is your knowledge and understanding of the game.

I see so many people talking about how sports coaches should be doing this and doing that. When I ask them have they done any coaching a lot will admit they haven’t or they coaches little Jimmy’s team from 7’s to 15’s. Whilst that is great it’s completely different. Even being a first grade coach at an amateur rugby club premiere grade team in Brisbane and Sydney is vastly different to being in a professional environment. Get your runs on the board, show people that you have a great understanding of not only the game but COACHING before going on like you’re an expert.


These people are not necessarily bad for your club. People that are so emotionally invested and passionate have a genuine love for the game, and are imperative for the success of a club, sporting code, business or organisation, so we definitely want and need them involved.


Page 226:

Football managers should look for their own modified version of Warren Buffett- people who care about long term; who provide them with the money they need to build their team; who don’t meddle in daily management; who are available when needed; and who understand that their job is only to make two decisions. The first is to replace the manager or CEO; the second is to sell the club. Unfortunately, these people are almost impossible to find in football, and the problem only seems to have been exacerbated by the way in which ownership, over the last 50 years, has gradually shifted from local businessmen to foreign oligarchs, sheikhs and hedge-fund managers, chasing their share of the television money that now floods the Premier League.


For their part, owners need to understand that football is different from businesses they themselves run and where they have enjoyed success. The clubs aren’t supermarkets chains, banks or electronics wholesalers.


Football is live entertainment, conducted on a scale that has no parallel. You just cannot manufacture wins with the reliability with which you can produce phones or razor blades, because everything hinges on the performance of individuals and the random influences of emotion, chance and injury.



I have seen this happen far too often. If anyone has earnt the right to make a statement such as this, it is Sir Alex Ferguson, who’s record at the 1 club is hard to compare with. I just love the way he justifies his opinion also.


Page 239:

Nobody had ever explained to me that working with, and through, others is by far the most effective way to do things- assuming, of course, that they understand what you want and are keen to follow. I gradually began to understand that this is the difference between management and leadership.



I have been reading a lot lately about leadership and teamwork. People thrive when given responsibility and accountability. This in turn leads to a ‘buy in’ of the vision and a much more dedicated employee, staff member or coach. We all like to feel as though we are achieving.


Page 239:

I slowly came to understand that my job was different. It was to set very high standards. It was to help everyone else believe they could do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before. It was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.



A business owner, manager, or head coach is responsible for setting standards and expectations of the club or business. But first he must set these for himself and lead by meeting them. He/she is the one at the top, they are the ultimate leader. I have seen far too often people who set out these standards and expectations but don’t live by them or maintain them themselves. How can you ask that of those around or below you if you can’t expect that of yourself?


You don’t have to be the top dog to set high standards or expectations though. Leaders aren’t necessarily the ones with positions of power or titles. Be hard on yourself and those that ware watching will follow.


Page 240:

When you’re a manager, it’s vital to care about the details but it’s equally important to understand that there isn’t enough time in the day to check on everything.



Don’t micromanage. Give people space and freedom but make sure expectations and standards are high and that coaches and managers are passing these onto players and staff.


Page 252:

Any leader is a salesman- and he has to sell to the inside of his organisation and to the outside. Anyone who aspires to be a great leader needs to excel at selling his ideas and aspirations to others. Sometimes you have to persuade people to do things that they don’t want to do, or to sell them on the idea that they can achieve something that they had not dreamed about.



The penny dropped a few years ago with me that we ALL are salespeople. Selling to your partner the reasoning for a boys weekend away, selling to your partner the reasoning why you need a new pair of shoes, to your boss about why you should get promoted or when asking for time off. Being a sales person is part of everyday life and is very much underestimated.

Ferguson’s reasoning of why it is so important for coaches to be salespeople is a great explanation and is transferrable to business owners and managers.






Epilogue by Sir Michael Moritz.


Who is Sir Michael Moritz?


Sir Michael Moritz was born in Cardiff, studied at Oxford and became a journalist at Time magazine in the US in the 1970s. He has written several books, and in 1986 joined Sequoia capital, in Silicon Valley, California.


Sequoia Capital’s close alliances with young founders have been transformed into companies now worth nearly $1.5 trillion, and include Apple, Cisco, YouTube, AirBnb & WhatsApp.


He is now Chairman of Sequoia Capital and was knighted in 2013.



Page 366:

The great leader has two other traits that separates him from other helmsmen. The first is an obsession. Obsessives, those who cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives, always find their work more fulfilling than those who find themselves in a profession because it was expected of them or because they did not have a calling that tugged at their emotions… They are leading their life, rather than feeling compelled to seek respectability from their work…

It is much more natural for the obsessive to achieve consistency- of effort, determination, drive and ambition- that is the foundation of leadership. It is much easier to endure all the setbacks, reversals and frustrations of management when you deeply enjoy your work- a sense that most ordinary managers rarely, if ever, experience.



I don’t know if this is a take home message, as it’s something I’ve strongly believed in for some time now, but it definitely reinforces it: Do what you love. Life is too short to not be doing something you don’t genuinely look forward to. It must excite you to get out of bed for, that should be your driving motivation, nothing else.


You need to be passionate about what it is you’re doing. I’ve found this out even with little side projects and ventures I’ve looked into, or started. When the going got tough and there were setbacks, I soon realised that I was not passionate about them and walked away. This is why I was able to overcome the setbacks I faced in my rugby career and the pursuit of my degree in Bachelor of Business. They are my passions.


Page 374:

At both Aberdeen and United, Sir Alex did not have to deal with owners or directors who wanted to meddle in football affairs, or assistant managers who usurped his authority. Sir Alex was given what every leader deserves- control to shape his own destiny and that of his organisation.



Consider the position of the Sir Michael Moritz, and the numerous roles he has held, when reading what he has written there. With a CV that reads like his, it probably makes sense to take it on board, he makes it pretty clear too.


Page 375:

I cannot think of one successful company that sequoia has been involved with that did not, at some point, face the threat of extinction.



Consider the companies that he has dealt with… AirBnB, YouTube, Apple and WhatApp to name a few. People think when looking from the outside in that because they failed or had a few setbacks that it’s impossible, because too often we only hear of companies and how well they are performing, not often enough of the struggles and how close they came to failing.


“It’s not that easy”…… The question is:         Why should it by easy!?



Page 378:

Communicating what he wanted from staff and players always seems to have come naturally to Sir Alex… His directions tended to be short and concise because barely anyone, whether they work in a hospital or steel mill or are part of a boy-scout group, can remember more than 3 instructions. Long-winded monologues do not strike the target in the way that brief talks relaying precise and concise instructions do.



Short, sharp and sweet. Try to stick with the number 3.


Page 381:

He learned to bolster players’ confidence when their spirits were down; he was quick to bring them down a peg or two when they were getting too big for their boots… He stoked their hunger for repeated success and, most importantly, he made each understand (no matter how much they were getting paid or how often they appeared in advertisements or magazines) that the team was bigger, and much more important, than any individual- a cruel truth that many, in both companies and investment firms, have a habit of forgetting.


MTHM: A person, whether player or employee, who thinks they are better than everyone else in the team or that they are the team, or that the success of the team relies solely on them will kill a teams culture and in turn their coach’s career or position at the club, real quick. As Moritz states, this is something that is often forgotten, by individuals, coaches, business owners and managers. Get rid of them or they’ll be the cause of you being gotten rid of.


Page 382:

Many leaders all habit, affection, happily shared experiences or sentiment to cloud their judgement. It is easy to fall into a comfortable routine and assume that the people who contributed yesterday will continue to make contributions tomorrow. It is easier to be tolerant or to compromise than to confront ugly situations, deliver painful news or demand changes. Partly because of his nature and partly because it is very difficult to hide shortcomings on a football field (compared to the way mediocre bumblers can survive in large companies for decades), Sir Alex never blanched at putting the team before the man, or the future before past accomplishments.



This was a great lesson that I took out of this book, confront situations before they become problems. Make the tough decisions.


“compared to the way mediocre bumblers can survive in large companies for decades”


Again, a very provocative statement, but Moritz is as entitled and with the credibility of anyone in the world to make such a statement from past experiences. I had always wondered about those who were in senior management positions and CEO roles, that would jump from role to role and company to company, and what impact they had when they were jumping from a company that was already very healthy and stable before they arrived and then went to a similar position in another one after a few years at the helm, all whilst collecting a considerable pay package, of what their worth really was. It would appear that there are a few of these bumblers out there and they make a good living for a long time all the whilst without being necessarily accountable.

“it’s not what you know… it’s who you know”.


I hope you enjoyed my notes and what I took out of ‘Leading’. It was one of the best books I have read and I highly recommend reading it.


Feel free to reach out to me about feedback or what you enjoyed about the book.



LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/beaurobbo/


Cheers, Beau.

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