Sir Alex Ferguson’s Unique Interpretation of Success

Most of us congratulate our team when they win, right? What’s interesting is that many successful leaders adopt an an alternative approach. One example of this was Sir Alex Ferguson’s response when his Aberdeen team won the Scottish Cup. Did he congratulate them?

Most of us congratulate our team when they win, right? What’s interesting is that many successful leaders adopt an an alternative approach. One example of this was Sir Alex Ferguson’s response when his Aberdeen team won the Scottish Cup. Did he congratulate them?

Creating a Culture of Dissatisfaction

Aberdeen, who were a relatively small team in Scotland, managed to break up the duopoly of Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. No mean feat at the time. And, to put this into perspective, few teams outside Glasgow have won the league since then.
Aberdeen had performed well in the league that season, and retained the Scottish Cup with a 1–0 win over Rangers.
Most managers would have done three things:

  1. Congratulate their backroom staff. Those that never get attention.
  2. Deflect the glory to others. Say it was really the players efforts.
  3. Remind them that they need to sustain it for next year.

All common sense approaches.
But Ferguson was not happy with his team’s play in that match. Actually, he was livid. He was described the win as a “disgraceful performance” in a televised interview after the match.
Ferguson worked very hard to avoid any complacency entering into the team. Despite their best efforts, he demanded more.

Using Success as a Benchmark

Think about this for a second. Most of us would revel in the moment, slap the team on the back, and back in the warm glow of success. Especially when you consider how hard it was for the team at the time.
Later Ferguson retracted his comments. But, he’d made his point. He wasn’t satisfied with this result. He wanted to create a culture where they players were never satisfied with today’s results but say them as a springboard for future success.
It’s a risky strategy.
Do you think it works?

12 thoughts on “Sir Alex Ferguson’s Unique Interpretation of Success”

  1. It has certainly worked for Alex over the years but as you say Ivan, it is risky. I think this is a strategy not to be adopted unless you are the type of person that revels in risk taking, is thick skinned and has a very high opinion of themselves.

    1. Hi Colum,
      Yes, I’d second that. I reminds me of Rafa Benetiz when they won the CL. Instead of praising the players he started to tell them what they’d done wrong… as they were doing their lap of honor 🙂

  2. It would certainly seem that Fergie has got it right, one just has to look at the results both in Scotland and England for evidence. There are plenty of examples of where he has kept the larger group on it’s toes by making examples of individuals e.g. McGrath, Whiteside, Beckham, Stam, Ince and Van Nistelrooy, spring to mind. On the other hand he’s let others get away with things e.g Robson, Cantona, Rooney and .
    I guess it all comes down to great situational awareness. If you’re no longer a key element of the team, you’d better not cross him, or you’re out.
    I’m currently reading a book about Vince Lombardi (coach of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers) who won 5 Championships in the 60’s (including 3 in a row). There are significant parallels between his character and Ferguson’s. Both were never great players in their sports and it is clear that they both get/got most out of their players via the art of psychology. Much like Ferguson, Lombardi fostered a dual culture of love and fear, which kept the players on their toes. There are quite a few stories from ex-Packer players detailing how Lombardi would go crazy after a win because the team did perform to the expected standards, in the same way Ferguson did following the victory over Rangers. In contrast after a defeat where the team had played well, but still lose, he would close ranks and not go as hard on the players as expected.
    It is certainly a risky approach, but the bottom line for me is that you must know the people who work for you, and what their response will be to certain treatment. It is certainly obvious that both Ferguson and Lombardi know/knew which players respond well to an ear bashing, and which respond best to an arm around the shoulder.

    1. Hi Frank,
      I must get a book by Vince. I’ve read so much about him and know that SAF has read his books too.
      One of the lines I remember from him is ‘sometimes the bench is a players best friend.’
      Which I thought was great. It’s all about timing and knowing how to get them on the edge but… not pushing them over it.
      And re Lombardi fostered a dual culture of love and fear, which kept the players on their toes.
      One of my friends works in Apple and says it’s like this all the time. There is a real us v them mentality inside (he’s in Cupertino) and sacrifices are part of the course.
      Ivan

      1. The book I’m currently reading about Lombardi is a biography called “When Pride Still Mattered”. Highly recommended.

  3. There’s a fine balance between never letting someone never rest on their laurels versus a pat on the back and ‘well done, son’. I like the ‘praise sandwich’…. getting your point across but with them coming away feeling better rather than worse!
    There’s a lot of players who didn’t like the way Benitez was so distant from his players, never giving praise.. I think it’s all about managing the individual. Some people need to be kept on their toes whilst others need a hand round the shoulder. All the best managers know how to deal with people and get the best out of them. The most important thing being the person in charge needs to command 100% respect.

    1. Hi,
      I read an interview with Diego Forlan who said one of his strongest memories at united was the Christmas dinner when SAF served the players their turkey. He said he couldn’t believe the way he treated the players and made so much of them.
      Contrast this is Benetiz – and I’m a pool fan – and sadly no-one was sad to see him leave. He did an amazing job there but managed to alienate most everyone in the process.
      …I think it’s all about managing the individual
      Absolutely. And I think that’s why SAF generates so much loyalty from his players, even the former stars who were moved on.

  4. I don’t think that would work. Especially with some certain types of personalities. But has he changed? Yes, I think so!

    1. You’re right in that he has changed, certainly more mellow.
      Of all the qualities that he values, loyalty seems to be one of the strongest. Which, of course, cuts both ways 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *