After 26 years in the hot seat of one of the most successful football clubs in history, Sir Alex Ferguson finally decided to bow out of the beautiful game. Since taking over from Ron Atkinson in 1986, Ferguson has guided Manchester United to 13 English Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two European Cups.

Much has been said about the 71-year-old’s leadership style, that many players, ex-players and fans believe is the cornerstone of his highly successful reign at the club.

Whether running a football club or a multi-million-dollar multinational company, the hallmark of a great leader is how he successfully handles different employee personalities while at the same time keeping them motivated and hungry for more trophies.

Fostering a culture of success and dedication

Former players like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo still talk about how Ferguson cultivated a thirst for winning at Manchester United, even after all the club had achieved. The manager’s passion for the sport rubbed off on his players and motivated them to continually achieve.

Organisations from different industries can follow this simple example. As an employee, it is hard not to be motivated and inspired when the boss himself exudes so much passion to take the organisation further, setting a good eexample for his subordinates.

Ferguson was lauded for his ability to foster a culture of success and dedication throughout the Manchester United organisation. He also identified influential players in his team and used them to drive through the winning culture to the other members.

Over the years, the club has seen inspirational leaders like Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and, more recently, Nemanja Vidic, take on that role. Organisations can follow suit by leveraging team leaders and departmental heads to drive inspiration and passion to all levels of the organisation.

Respecting history and traditions

It is also important to highlight and remind employees of the traditions and culture of the organisation they are working in. Globalisation has seen people from many different nationalities and backgrounds travel the world for business or in search of work. The challenge companies face is to create a “uniform environment” or “level playing field” for the many different diasporas.

Having spent such a long time at Manchester United, Ferguson was very familiar with the club’s history and traditions and was never shy about communicating them to his players. He ran a tight ship and made sure no player felt he was bigger than the club. He instilled the belief that it was a privilege to wear the club’s jersey, not a right.

This is a lesson that managers can learn about managing personalities in an organisation. The hallmark of a successful company is one where employees put the organisation's achievements before personal ones.

Relating to your employees

Nowadays, we rarely hear of organisations that have members of the management operating in silos, or an environment that limits communication between ranks. It is paramount that employees and employers are comfortable and are free to voice opinions or discuss issues.

One of Ferguson’s leadership qualities was his ability to relate to people from different walks of life. He connected with his wealthy players and brought that same style of engagement into all of his interactions — whether it was with his assistant or the ground staff.

In a recent interview, Ferguson’s personal assistant Lyn Laffin said: “If someone knocks on his door and they have a problem, the first thing he does is turn the chair around and say, ‘Sit down, let’s talk’ . ”

A boss who embraces this “open door” policy creates an environment where hierarchical differences are only on name cards. Employees are more likely to share problems, raise concerns and voice new ideas and opinions to a boss who takes time to speak and listen to them. The onus is also employers to be approachable.

Former Manchester United club captain Cantona spent five years under Ferguson and commended the manager on how “he adapts himself to all generations of players”.

In the workplace, it is even more important these days that employers make the time and take the initiative to ensure employees that the organisation cares about their well-being and values their feedback.

After all, a football club is only as good as its players; and an organisation is only as good as its employees.


Article by Terry Smagh, vice-president for South-east and North Asia at QlikView, a business discovery platform that delivers user-driven business intelligence (BI). For more information, visit