Alex Ferguson says leaders must never lose control – surely not?


Alex Ferguson published his bestselling book ‘Leading’ this September. In his eight lessons, he cites #4 as Never Ever Cede Control.

Although this clearly worked well for Ferguson in his 27-year tenure of Manchester United football club, I have been pondering whether this is a ‘magic ingredient’ of Ferguson’s management style that we should all heed – or if this only worked in the football world.

Managing 30 millionaires

Ferguson is quoted in Harvard Business Review saying, “You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. If any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.”

In business, the best leadership is when team members feel that their good ideas are listened to and implemented; and feel led but not obviously so.

Control feels such an old-fashioned concept. Part of the ‘heroic leader’personality. I love the way Mike Myatt explains this on Forbes, “Do you like to swoop-in and save the day? Do you see yourself as the white knight who can solve any problem or challenge? If you do, you have what I refer to as ‘hero leader syndrome’. Any leader’s belief that he or she can do everything better than anyone else is a root cause of inhibiting workforce productivity.”

Hear, hear.

Heroic leaders

An heroic leader knows all the answers and tells everyone what to do. This might – just – have worked in the 19th century, where workers had few rights or options. These days, employees will either switch off or walk out.

The best leadership style is coaching. The best leaders encourage solutions to problems from anyone in their business and are happy to let individuals take the credit for them. At times there will be a need for a directive approach, particularly in a crisis, so a good leader needs to be able to flex their style between directive and coaching according to circumstances. The art of top leadership is knowing which to use, when.


Analyse your leadership style

There are tools to help leaders identify their natural leadership personality traits, and these give a baseline from which to improve performance. One that we at Corporate Faculty use is FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior™ assessment).

This tool helps to improve awareness. We then discuss with leaders what it is like to let go of control and do exercises in teams. For some delegates this can be a real problem, control is an ingrained habit and they worry that things will go to pieces if they aren’t controlling – even in a team-building exercise!

At one level, it sounds good having a leader who is so confident of their skills that they are happy to step up and lead. But a good leader should be vulnerable. They recognise they have people in their teams who may have a higher IQ than they do and that they don’t have the answers to everything. Their role is to be the conductor of the orchestra, getting everyone to play to their strengths.

Just as conductors are recognised for producing masterpieces from what is often a mediocre orchestra, a really talented leader has a clear vision of what the final music should sound like and knows who can contribute what, to make this sound. They then motivate everyone to play their very best – sometimes loudly, sometimes in a lesser role. But everyone wants the whole orchestral piece to work than individuals to shine.

Looking at Ferguson, he clearly achieved the end goal of taking the club to the top, winning title after title, including a third successive Premier League title, the first time any team had won three successive league titles more than once.

Was Ferguson’s control needed because he was managing – as he put it – all millionaires? I firmly believe, millionaire or not, you can and should lead without ‘control’. But is there anything for us to learn from Ferguson’s approach – would more control produce better business results?




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