Review of Alex Ferguson’s new book, ‘Leading’; A lesson in making money

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If you can get away with it, writing a book on leadership lessons is the greatest gig ever. If your book isn’t good or has bad advice, by default the reader is to blame because, well, the author was successful so the advice must work! In a sense, these kind of books are aggrandized autobiographies that allow an author to trumpet their successes while simultaneously impart wisdom to the audience so that maybe they too can become a major winner just like X.

Inside the front cover of Sir Alex Ferguson’s new book Leading (written with Michael Moritz), the book claims to do two things. It reveals the secrets behind his success in a number of key areas like data analysis, and impart wisdom to leaders of all different types of companies and businesses. In regards to the former, that description is accurate. Each chapter and subchapter takes a topic and Sir Alex opines on how he handled each. Some are more specific (Organization, Global Markets, Negotiations) and some are more vague (Excellence). In each, Sir Alex uses anecdotes and stories from his time in soccer to illustrate how he was able to tackle each. For example, in “Arriving,” Sir Alex describes how he never stops building a club and that there is no pinnacle upon which a successful manager can rest. He also shares two changes he would have made to his first few years at United: Not calling out his new team for their alleged drinking problems, and not shipping out some of the more problematic players sooner. In these instances, when he focuses on advice as if he were talking to a new Premier League manager, I found the book to be interesting.

However, there are two major issues with the book. The first is that Sir Alex tends to downplay certain things about his time at Manchester United. For example, under “Inspiring,” he talks about how he tended to try and build players up: “I wasn’t afraid of criticizing a player when I felt I could help him improve, but I always tried to couch this in a positive way.” Later he dismisses the repeated stories of his temper by simply glossing over them as exaggeration. Since this is essentially an autobiography, he is entitled to his version of stories.

Second, he wanders into weird places such as his criticism of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for ruining English football because of her disdain of hooliganism that made teachers not want to organize proper soccer training. This could be true but it seems like an odd detour.

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My biggest problem with this book is that it claims to be a template for leaders in all fields. In fact, if you are not a soccer coach, this book holds little leadership value for you. If you don’t trust me, take Sir Alex’s own words. Throughout the book he mentions that he doesn’t know other lines of business but here are his own lessons anyway. And while the reader can take some of them and apply them to his or her life, too often the stories and examples are grounded in specific instances that it is not possible to be used unless you are Sir Alex Ferguson.

The book has gotten a ton of publicity for its statement that there are only two world class players around, but when reading the book he couches that pretty well in a way that explains his thinking. In the end, if you want to hear from Sir Alex what made him a success, and you can’t afford to fly to the UK, a French vineyard, or Harvard, this is the next best thing to a conversation with him. Just don’t expect to walk away with actual advice on how to grow your company or hire the right people.

Leading is available at all fine booksellers including Amazon.

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