Saturday 25 February 2017

Any worthwhile leadership statements have been lost in a fog of self-mythology

That was the week

Dion Fanning

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

In his new book Leading, Alex Ferguson tells us that listening is one of the traits he believes is essential if you want to become a leader. To see if we have the right stuff, we are then required to do quite a lot of it because reading — another key quality — this book is like finding yourself on long train journey opposite a man who decides that what you need is to hear every well-rehearsed anecdote that made him what he is.

This would be worth it if Ferguson came close to the perception and insight of his best autobiography, written with Hugh McIlvanney in 1999. It doesn’t, of course, but then it is not a memoir, it is a book that sprung from Ferguson’s trips to talk to MBA students at Harvard Business School

There will surely be many more, all with the one-word titles favoured in business publishing these days, suggesting that this book won’t waste your time.

In the future we can perhaps look forward to others from Ferguson with similar punchy titles such as Festering, Resenting, Destroying.

Listening and watching are vital, he says, and they are free, at which point you expect him to add, “it’s nice to be nice and it costs nothing,” in the spirit of well-intentioned fools over the years. But Ferguson, of course, was always prepared to pay the price for not being nice.

Naturally, as this is a book rooted in education, Ferguson stops off first at his own school and gives a mention to the formidable Elizabeth Thomson. In this book, he makes no mention of the gift she bequeathed to Ferguson: the belt she beat him with while he was a pupil and which, Ferguson has revealed before, hangs proudly in his study, close to the Despots section in his library.

Perhaps mention of the belt would have led people to a realisation about Alex Ferguson which would not be so rewarding: he is an instinctive genius as well as being an instinctive bully, an instinctive control freak and, as all his books have confirmed, an instinctive churl. These instincts have served him well, but if there was a time when he could offer anything beyond bromides about leadership, they have been lost in the fog of self-mythology.

Perhaps like players who cannot explain what they did, Ferguson is unsure how things worked. Yet there is also something demeaning in witnessing this great force of nature reduced to offering pat advice for business leaders, like swinging by an IMI conference and seeing Marshal Tito doing a meet and greet over tea and biscuits.

If he keeps this up, we will soon lose sight of what Alex Ferguson was, the empire he created and the power and control he exerted. Old footballers have always been forced to work in the corporate lounges, but they have needed the money. Ferguson doesn’t, although whether the company he helped create is big enough to truly interest the business world is another point.

Ferguson was an unstoppable creation, which is where he may be of most interest to the business community. His co-author, Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist, explained in an interview on Friday that he was “an enormous believer in the power or the ability of an individual to do dramatic things with any organisation”.

Ferguson did that and now he aims to let the business world know how he did it. This would be promising if, instead, Ferguson provided true insight, but it has something in common with his other books: a need to take people out.

Roy Keane, of course, is the most notable example as their childish feud continues in the style of a couple of characters from a reality show, desperately aware that their entire existence hinges on this plot line.

Ferguson and Keane should be different, but their tiresome battle continues and there is something needy in this book. “Most people don’t have inner conviction,” Ferguson writes and we are told that the feckless majority are “plagued with doubts”. He, on the other hand, hasn’t doubted himself since about 1991. Not even signing Eric Djemba-Djemba could weaken that iron resolve.

This is good to know, but perhaps it’s not what the business world needs to know, stuffed as it is with people with great inner conviction whose decisive acts often end up costing the rest of us a few billion big ones.

Amazingly, the people who succeed in life, according to Alex Ferguson, share a lot of personality traits with Alex Ferguson and the people who don’t, well, they don’t. When he first met Charlie Rose — a top, top, top listener — he knew they’d get on fine once Rose told him he was half-Scottish.

Ordinary people might be wary or bored when somebody tells us they share our heritage. We might have learned through experience that what often comes next is some wild stereotyping or a bad Irish accent, but Fergie is not so superficial. Charlie Rose is half Scottish and that’s good enough for Alex Ferguson who is, essentially, Scotland.

He is, of course, Manchester United too. He managed only four world-class players, he says, and his complicated criteria exclude Keane, who will be consoled to read that he was a great player like Bryan Robson or Steve Bruce. It may well have been a way of settling scores, but it also serves another purpose. If there were only four world-class players, how intergalactically good a manager was Alex Ferguson? If there had been ten or 20, maybe people would think differently.

This is where the myth is in danger of destroying the essential truth about the man. Nobody else could have done what he did, but we tend to learn more from the omissions than the text. Despite the absence of self-doubt since 1991, perhaps there is still an insecurity about his legacy which is why all those who question him must be exiled. “My mantra was, ‘Tell them nothing’,” he writes in a section headlined, ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ . . . sorry, ‘Confidentiality’. It’s a mantra he can’t abandon now.

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