No Image Available

Graham Dietz

Read more from Graham Dietz

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement: Nine leadership thoughts


Will Sir Alex Ferguson's style of leadership endure in football's unpredictable future, and should he even take all the credit for Manchester United's success? Dr Graham Dietz deconstructs a footballing titan. 

So, probably the greatest football manager in the history of the game has retired. Sir Alex Ferguson, who led Manchester United to a near-constant series of trophy triumphs for 26 years, has finally called time on his glittering career.

For United fans, his departure has seemed like the death of a father figure, and there is now a gaping hole in their lives where SAF once stood, like a Colossus (tapping his watch). For the rest of us, however, it feels like the boot that has pressed down on our throats since 1992 has finally been lifted.

What are the HR ramifications of the resignation?

The ramifications have been fascinating. For United the club, the succession to David Moyes has been relatively smooth, if not, perhaps, fully convincing – as we shall see. SAF had set himself the task of leaving the club in as strong a position as he could, a commendably loyal and conscientious final act for a man for whom the ‘stewardship’ model of management took precedence over a more short-termist, self-interested approach. Moyes will arrive in July to a resource-rich global powerhouse of a footballing institution with a squad full of experience and potential.

But, for the rest of us, the possibility that the transition has been botched is tantalising. Here, then, are nine thoughts on the succession from two perspectives that inform research at Durham University Business School: leadership and trust.

  • He was a middle manager: the first odd detail to reflect upon is that, in conventional hierarchy terms, Ferguson was not the leader, but 'merely' a middle manager – an operations director. He did not lead United on the organisational chart: he was not the CEO, he was not even on the board (he is now), and yet United’s success has been almost entirely attributed to him and his 'leadership'.
  • Deification of leaders: One powerful idea that informs the research we do is Meindl’s 'romance of leadership', which asks why credit for success, and blame for failure, is often given wholly to the leader, as if they are an omniscient controller of events, singlehandedly bending the group’s destiny to their will. In reality, plenty of other people have been instrumental in United’s success: the players, the backroom staff, the CEO, the Board, Howard Webb (!), and more. Ferguson did indeed become United’s totemic figurehead, and did drive much of what happened at United, but he did not do it alone. The near-deification of individual leaders (Steve Jobs is another example) does a disservice to those in supporting roles.
  • Robust organisational system: Burke and Litwin view organisations as 'systems' of multiple parts: leadership, certainly, but also strategy, culture, policies, management practice and others. Manchester United’s 'system', developed and improved during Ferguson’s tenure, provided him with strong foundations, and ample support. Apart from the eye-watering debt levels loaded onto the club, United is, by all accounts, a well-run organisation. Viewed as a system, it has a culture of excellence, discipline and absolute commitment to the club; a feted youth development scheme and scouting network; the global reach and scale of its marketing; sufficient financing for an enormous wage bill and transfer fees beyond the reach of all but two rivals, and for lucrative extensions to the stadium. More than anything, United has a unique 'organisational memory': a full-to-bursting bank of legendary great escapes and late, late winners (vs Sheffield Wednesday, 1992; vs Juventus and Bayern Munich, 1999) such that United never panic and never accept defeat, until the final whistle. It wasn’t just Ferguson; United’s entire organisational ‘system’ has terrified opponents for 26 years.
  • Romance of leadership: That said, the 'romance' of Ferguson’s leadership has dominated the analysis. So, how might we understand his style? If we compare what we have seen and heard of him over the last 26 years with the standard models of leadership – especially the 'full-range' model developed by Bernard Bass and colleagues – Ferguson would surely score favourably on most dimensions (√), but question marks remain on some dimensions (Table 1): He led by example, but often unpalatably so; his fostering of a siege mentality could often be aggressive and vindictive. He instilled pride and loyalty from all but a handful of renegades (Jaap Stam, Roy Keane), yet he did not hesitate to discard individual consideration if to cosset one player would be to the detriment of the club (Ince, Beckham, Stam, Rooney?). He set exacting standards, but proved adaptable and flexible, and open to new ideas.
  • 'Anger is his petrol': however, what is glaringly missing from the full-range model (very much the standard in the leadership literature) is SAF’s abiding, enduring and defining strength: his sheer will to win, at almost any cost. Patrick Barclay, Ferguson’s biographer, put it best: “Anger is his petrol”. To sustain the relentless pursuit of success for so long, especially in the face of complacency, is surely the distinctive characteristic of a truly great leader. This requires an all-encompassing determination that can be inspiring and motivating, but it can also be intimidating and ugly. Ferguson’s baiting and undermining of anyone he saw as standing in United’s way wasn’t attractive, but was definitely effective. He understood that there is an element of devilry in leading that the more idealistic strands of leadership research either overlook, or downplay. Or, does this detract from his leadership, and his achievements?
  • Machiavellian ruthlessness v trust: another way of viewing leaders – indeed, anyone – is through the lens of trust. Research has identified four main characteristics of trustworthiness: ability (competence in the job), benevolence (motivation, and concern), integrity (honesty, fairness, moral conduct), and predictability (consistent, reliable behaviour). Ferguson’s record is testament to his unrivalled ability, his motivation and commitment to United. Observers could be pretty sure what to expect from him in press conferences and post-match reactions. Yet many might query his integrity, noting the ruthless streak that appeared when it suited his purposes. Integrity is often presented and promoted as the indispensible quality or sine qua non of a leader, yet there are enough accounts of extremely successful leaders – Ferguson, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Sugar – to suggest that a flair for Machiavellian machinations may be essential to leadership endurance.
  • A tall order for Moyes: and so what of his successor, Everton’s David Moyes? Many have praised United’s move as an act of stability and continuity, replacing Ferguson with another somewhat dour, disciplinarian Scot who prizes passion and loyalty. (Indeed, some accounts say that SAF handpicked his own successor.) Moyes has been given a gentle and encouraging analysis so far: on motivation and integrity he scores highly, but on ability? One metric – predicted league position based on wage bill – would see him as having excelled at Everton. But does he have the ability to succeed at the level that United expect him to operate? He has not won anything, and has just 180 minutes of Champions League experience (a failed playoff to reach the group stages, in 2005). The transition may take some time, and many fear/hope that it will not work out.
  • Omnipotence can end yet be rekindled: if the transition doesn't work, could United’s long near-omnipotence come to an inglorious end? It sounds absurd, but it’s happened to them before (the post-Busby years). If you had told a Liverpool fan in 1990, after their 18th title, that they won’t win it again for at least 23 years – and that their bitterest rivals, United, would eclipse them in domestic honours in that time – they would have scoffed. For succession to be successful, the organisational system behind the new leader now needs to prove its worth. It’s not just down to Moyes.
  • ...But that will be how the media will depict it. The newspapers and television companies play their part in perpetuating the 'romance of leadership', and Moyes will ultimately be the one judged against his juggernaut of a predecessor.

This article first appeared on our sister site HRzone

This article was written by Dr Graham Dietz, BA, MSc, PhD, PGCLTHE, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Durham University Business School.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!