Sir Alex Ferguson Shares Secrets of Manchester United Success With Harvard Business School Students

Sir Alex FergusonFor some Harvard Business School (HBS) students, learning from Sir Alex Ferguson was worth the price of admission, er, tuition.

The Manchester United manager visited the world-renowned institution earlier this year, adding color to the classroom discussion about his leadership and management style, the Harvard Gazette reports.

Ferguson is the subject of the HBS case study titled “Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United.” The 25-page essay gives an in-depth look at Ferguson’s methods, which have brought United so much success over the last 26 years.

Anita Elberse and Tom Dye authored the study. They visited Manchester last year and conducted interviews with Ferguson, United players and staff. They invited Ferguson to visit HBS, and the United boss took them up on the offer.

“I wanted students to examine his philosophy to the management of the club,” Elberse said, “season by season, and game by game, so that they could distill the major lessons and his formula for success.

“I can try to capture his thinking in a case, but that is only words on paper,” the co-author continued. “To have him there, and for students to be able to see him in action, see how he addresses a group and see snippets of his personality, there’s no replacement for that live experience.”

Ferguson, 70, jumped at the chance to face a new type of challenge in this late stage of his career.

“When you’re approached by an institution like Harvard, you know you are dealing with top quality,” he said. “I had to consider that I was opening myself up to something I’ve never done before. But at this stage of my life, I felt that if I’m helping young people progress through their own routes to management, then ultimately that was an important and compelling factor for me.”

The Scotsman was impressed by the students he encountered. Some aspects of their approach mirror those of the professional soccer players he’s coached, led and mentored in his nearly four-decades-long career on the sidelines. He even learned new things about his own methods by interacting with the students.

“The whole atmosphere was professional,” he said. “It was clear that they had done their homework. That was the important thing. They had properly read the case study and supplemented that with their own opinions and research. … That gave me a certain assurance that I had made the right decision to go ahead with the case.

“The process was excellent, enjoyable and comfortable,” he added. “I never felt intimidated in any way, and I never felt reluctant to be anything other than completely open.

“The part of the discussion from which I learned the most about myself was when they were discussing the balance between ‘fear’ and ‘love’ in my approach to managing people. If you look at my history, there’s all this hype about hair dryers and anger and so on. But the students acknowledged another side to it, which is more apt in terms of how I have fostered relations with people and developed the team over the years. The reality is not always how the press portray it. I felt the students were quite accurate in terms of how they analyzed this aspect, questioning and recognizing this important dynamic of management.”

Ferguson has been recognized as a master in the art of leading and managing soccer clubs. His 12 Premier League championships, two UEFA Champions League titles, five FA cups and 10 League Cups all mark his excellence in these fields.

The Harvard visit gave him a chance to rub shoulders with leaders of the future, and he was reportedly a big hit among the students. Perhaps one day, when he retires from his current role, he’ll take up teaching on a full-time basis. If he does, it won’t be long before Harvard awards him an honorary degree, adding to the nine he already has.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer, NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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