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This excerpt appears in Sir Alex Ferguson's "Leading: Learning From Life and My Years at Manchester United. " Copyright Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Michael Moritz, courtesy of Hachette Books. For more information, please visit https://www.alexfergusonleading.co.uk/.
Check out Sir Alex’s conversation with Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield.
I found myself on the campus of Harvard University in October of 2012 thanks to a collision of circumstances. A year or so previously I had received an approach from Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School. She had been curious about the way I managed United and the success that the club had enjoyed, and this resulted in a Harvard case study, Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United, which was written following Anita spending a few days shadowing me at our training ground in the mornings and interviewing me in the afternoons. Around the same time, she invited me to come and speak to her class at their campus in Boston. I was intrigued, if a little daunted, and accepted the invitation.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that this lecture marked the start of a transitional phase in my career. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we were just a few weeks into what would turn out to be my final season in charge at Old Traﬀord, and there was a lot on my mind. We had lost the title in the previous season on goal diﬀerence to our local rivals, Manchester City, but were determined to bounce back. And we had started the new season strongly. Two days before I ﬂew to Boston, we had come away from St James’ Park with a 3-0 win over Newcastle United. It was our fifth victory in seven games and took us to second place in the Premier League, four points behind Chelsea. We had also made a 100 per cent start to our Champions League campaign, UEFA’s premier club competition, formerly known as the European Cup.
But for the time being, as I stood at the front of the classroom in Harvard, I put the Premier League and Champions League campaigns to one side and focused on sharing some of the secrets behind Manchester United’s recent success.
The class began with Professor Elberse providing an overview of the diﬀerent constituents I dealt with as manager of Manchester United – the players and the staﬀ, the fans and the media, the board and our owners. I followed this by giving the students my thoughts on the principal elements of leadership. I then took questions from the students. This was the most enjoyable part of the day and it raised topics that I found myself thinking about in the days that followed. The students were all curious about how I became a leader, the individuals who had a major inﬂuence on my approach to life, the way I dealt with absurdly gifted and highly paid young men, the manner in which United maintained a thirst for excellence – and a raft of other topics. Understandably they also wanted to know about the daily habits of household names like Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.
It took me a bit of time to adjust to standing in front of a blackboard rather than sitting in a football dugout, but I gradually began to realise that teaching bears some similarities to football management. Perhaps the most important element of each activity is to inspire a group of people to perform at their very best. The best teachers are the unsung heroes and heroines of any society, and in that classroom I could not help but think of Elizabeth Thomson, a teacher at Broomloan Road Primary School, who encouraged me to take my school work seriously and who helped me gain admission to Govan High School.
I have spent much of my life trying to coax the best out of young people and the Harvard classroom presented another such opportunity. As the years have gone by, I have found that my appetite for, and appreciation of, youthful enthusiasm has only grown. Young people will always manage to achieve the impossible – whether that is on the football field or inside a company or other big organisation. If I were running a company, I would always want to listen to the thoughts of its most talented youngsters, because they are the people most in touch with the realities of today and the prospects for tomorrow.
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