“Sir Alex who?” ask most Americans.

Try to imagine the soccer version of Tony Dungy.


Sir Alex spent 26 years as manager of Manchester United, one of the richest and most successful clubs in sport. During these 26 years, Sir Alex won 13 English league titles and 25 other domestic and international trophies, including two Champions League trophies. The Harvard Business Review analyzed Ferguson’s Formula and came up with 8 Leadership Lessons.

It’s a fascinating and extensive article on the psychology of leadership (the full article if free but you need to sign up to HBR to access it). But what struck me as I read it was that although some of the principles of leadership were applicable to church and ministry, some would be disastrous if brought into the church setting. Here’s a summary and some of the best quotes.

1. Start With the Foundation
When Sir Alex arrived at United there was a dearth of young players in the first team. Although it would take years to pay off in a results-driven industry, he started youth academies and invested in centers of excellence. He says: “I wanted to build right from the bottom. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit.”

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team
Even in times of great success, Sir Alex worked to rebuild and refresh his team while continuing to win trophies and yet spending less money than any of his main rivals. The key to his success was looking 3-4 years ahead: “The cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years, and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly.”

3. Set High Standards and Hold Everyone to Them
“We never allowed a bad training session. What you see in training manifests itself on the game field. So every training session was about quality….I said that to them all the time: ‘If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.’ And the work ethic and energy I had seemed to spread throughout the club.”

4. Never, Ever Cede Control
“You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,” And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.” An important part of maintaining high standards across the board was his willingness to respond forcefully when players violated those standards…Before I came to United, I told myself I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was. Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. That is vital.”

5. Match the Message to the Moment
When he had to tell a player who might have been expecting to start that he wouldn’t be starting, he would approach it as a delicate assignment. “I do it privately,” he told us. “It’s not easy. I say, ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here’—I always say that—‘but I think this is the best team for today.’ I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical and that bigger games are coming up.”

“No one likes to be criticized,” he said. “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player—for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented.”

6. Prepare to Win
“Winning is in my nature. I’ve set my standards over such a long period of time that there is no other option for me—I have to win. I expected to win every time we went out there. Even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win.”

7. Rely on the Power of Observation
Sir Alex increasingly delegated the training sessions to his assistant coaches. But he was always present, and he watched. “As a coach on the field, you don’t see everything…A regular observer, however, can spot changes in training patterns, energy levels, and work rates….I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key—or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”

8. Never Stop Adapting
“Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change. We had to be successful—there was no other option for me—and I would explore any means of improving. I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first.”

Which of these leadership principles are helpful for ministry? And which would be damaging?

You can read the whole article here (free sign up).

  • Alastair Manderson

    9. When things started to crumble he brought in Walter Smith, the greatest living manager, to be his assistant.