Staying on the Ball: Leadership Lessons from A Premier Coach

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On October 14, 2013

Just a few years ago if you’d asked most Americans about European Football (soccer) you probably would have greeted with blank stares. Now many Americans follow the English Premier League on television—and they know one team in particular: Manchester United. And without question, a large part of the success of Manchester United has to be laid at the feet of their former coach, Sir Alex Ferguson.

The parallels between coaches and business leaders are sometimes obvious. Many a business leader can quote legendary basketball coach John Wooden eloquently. What can we learn from a soccer coach from “across the pond?” Here are a few leadership traits from a highly successful coach that apply to American business.

  • Take a Long-term Approach: We still struggle with the idea of an “overnight” success. Coach Ferguson labored for seven years before his team claimed the coveted Premier League Cup. That’s an eternity in the sports world. But Ferguson invested in youth teams (what we’d call “farm clubs”) and scouting instead of being in a hurry to buy top players (at top dollar).
  • Always Look to the Future: Many teams (and businesses) rest on their laurels after achieving some degree of success. Ferguson refused to rely on the status quo (existing players and strategies), knowing that his competition was always looking to improve. That led to a lot of experimentation—and some risk-taking to stay ahead of the competition.
  • Adapt Your Style to Your Players: One management style won’t work for everyone. Ferguson was tasked with coaching players that even the British press called, “highly talented, overpaid, oversexed, and not very bright teenagers.” He responded with a mix of coach, boss, and father figure style. In your business you are probably dealing with a different dynamic (engineers or craftsmen, perhaps). You need to figure out what they will respond to.
  • Exit at the Top of Your Game: This is a really tough one! Ferguson left on his own terms—at the height of success—instead of being forced out. Business leaders need to know when it’s time to pass the reins over to someone else and move on to new challenges. It can be easy to get “comfortable” in a leadership position. But too much comfort can lead to complacency.

That’s part of how Sir Alex Ferguson achieved success. What are you doing in your leadership role to stay on the ball?