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# sme book club
What you can learn from one of the world's greatest football managers? Quite a lot, really
This month, we take a look inside the mind of Manchester United’s all-conquering chief, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Martin Rickett / PA Archive/Press Association Images Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson Martin Rickett / PA Archive/Press Association Images / PA Archive/Press Association Images

“I’ve never played for a draw in my life.”

So said Sir Alex Ferguson, who took Manchester United from the doldrums to be one of Europe’s most powerful clubs and, in the process, built a reputation as one of the greatest football managers to ever take up the clipboard.

In a recent book, How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson: The Business of Winning and Managing SuccessDamian Hughes attempts to unpick some of the attitude and approach which made Ferguson a success for 20 years in an environment where managers were routinely chewed up and spat out.

As the author, a clear fan of the volatile but charismatic leader, writes: “No one has managed at the highest level for so long. Or with such competitive courage.”

Who should read this book?

Hughes pitches the title at both bosses who are looking to get the most from those they lead and individuals trying to lift their own performance. Some sections focus on managing people, while others are very much about individual skills. But the author has good examples across the spectrum – from techniques for keeping focused to anecdotes from Ferguson’s career that show how he recruited the best players for the club and made the most of their skills.

Since his retirement from football in 2013, Ferguson has taken up a guest-lecturing slot at Harvard Business School, demonstrating the natural transfer of his skills from the sports field to the world of business. Hughes’ previous titles include Liquid Thinking: Inspirational Lessons from the World’s Great Achievers and How to Change Absolutely Everything – which gives you a fair idea of where the author is coming from.


What will it tell me?

Hughes’ focus through his book is on the concept of change or, to put it another way, how to continually lift performance. He starts with what are the building blocks of a strong team – choosing the right people, following Ferguson’s emphasis on players with “character” through his career as a manager.

The author uses one of many great Ferguson anecdotes to illustrate a key point here, the importance of finding people who were willing to accept their failings then work to improve them. A favourite ploy, he writes, was to invite potential recruits to a meeting and play them a video of one of their worst on-field moments as they sat in a darkened room. The United manager would then flick on the lights and ask: ”So what happened there?”

Soccer - Gary Neville Testimonial - Manchester United v Juventus - Old Trafford John Walton / EMPICS Sport John Walton / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

The purpose, according to Hughes, wasn’t to highlight playing flaws. Rather it was to work out how the footballer dealt with failure and whether they would strive to fix their shortcomings, or if they would simply try to sit on past successes.

In another chapter, Hughes looks at the importance of visualising goals. Here the Ferguson lesson comes from the 1999 UEFA Champions League decider, when Manchester United were trailing by a goal and looked out of the game.

During his half-time talk, the manager told his players to picture themselves standing a few feet away from the trophy as losers – knowing they had come so close but would probably never put their hands on the cup. The club later pulled off two, late goals and took home the title for the first time since 1968.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Final - Manchester United v Bayern Munich Matthew Ashton Matthew Ashton

The lesson Hughes offers is that many people see themselves as the victims, not creators, of change, an attitude which was stifling to long-term success. He moves on to some step-by-step visualisation techniques using the example of players like Wayne Rooney who pictured themselves scoring goals the night before a big game.

But it’s not just Ferguson who Hughes draws on for his case studies. Writing about the need to be hungry for feedback and to better oneself, the author turns to guitarist Jimi Hendrix for his example.

The story goes that the great musical innovator once spent a night in a club listening to what was possibly the worst player ever to strap on the instrument. When asked why, Hendrix admitted it had been bad so far but added: “He might just play something that has never been played before. If he does – I want to be here to learn from it.”

Music - Jimi Hendrix Starfile / Jim Cumins/EMPICS Entertainment Starfile / Jim Cumins/EMPICS Entertainment / Jim Cumins/EMPICS Entertainment

Make no mistake, this is a self-help book – although one which is smarter than most. The concepts, like working out distractions and finding ways to overcome them, are hardly revolutionary. But Hughes breaks them down well with Ferguson, in most cases, working as an excellent real-life example for the lessons.

In a nutshell: There’s a lot of good things anyone – business managers especially – can learn from Ferguson and Hughes does a good job of breaking down these concepts and pairing them with more generic performance-coaching tips. But if your goal is to really drill into what makes this great manager tick, Ferguson’s autobiography could be a better place to start.

If you liked this, you’ll love:

The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders >

The Alex Ferguson Quote Book: The Greatest Manager in His Own Words >

Each month, as part of’s ongoing SME focus, we look at a business book that makes a difference. Our focus for January has been on how setting goals and getting staff working together can deliver the best results for a business. To read more articles in our series click HERE

READ: The Big Idea: How to build happier (and more productive) workplaces >

READ: Business Poll: What is the best way to keep staff motivated on the job >

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