Man U's Alex Ferguson reveals it's all about 'the love' to Harvard University class

Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, has explained how he got to the top and how he manages his players, to a class of Harvard undergraduates.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

Alex Ferguson last night told Harvard Business School students some of his secrets about how he reached the top and how he has managed to stay there for 26 years. 

Speaking openly about how he manages football players, he said: ‘There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. You don’t need to use superlatives.’ This cuddly side may come as a surprise to many.

He was speaking to the students having been the subject of an academic study by the business school’s professor Anita Elberse. Fergie, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve, is famous for never speaking up about his management style. He added that criticism is a short, sharp thing for him, saying: ‘You can’t always come in shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work, no one likes to get criticised. 

‘But in the football dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game; I don’t wait until Monday. I do it, and it’s finished – I’m on to the next match. There is no point in criticising a player forever.’ Even in David Beckham’s case when he committed the sin of becoming distracted by his wife.

Fergie also revealed that he doesn’t tell players who will be in the team until the actual day of the game. ‘For a three o’clock game, we tell them at one o’clock and before that I speak to the players I’ve left out.

‘I do it privately. It’s not easy, but I do them all myself. It is important. I have been dropped from a Cup Final in Scotland as a player at ten past two, so I know what it feels like.’ He added: ‘I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up. But I believe you must make quick decisions and move on. Why should I go to my bed with a doubt?’

Speaking to the Harvard Gazette about the experience of discussing his management style with students, Ferguson said: ‘The part of the discussion from which I learned the most about myself was when they were discussing the balance between ‘fear’ and ‘love’ in my approach to managing people. 

‘If you look at my history, there’s all this hype about hair dryers and anger and so on. But the students acknowledged another side to it, which is more apt in terms of how I have fostered relations with people and developed the team over the years.’

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What they don't tell you about flexible working

The realities of ditching the nine to five don't always live up to the hype....

The business case for compassion: Nando's, Cisco and Innocent Drinks

Consciously, systematically humane cultures reap enormous benefits, argues academic Amy Bradley.

“I have great respect for the capital markets, but I don’t want their ...

Exclusive: PA Consulting CEO Alan Middleton on acquisition bids, growth strategy and life after private...

Dame Inga Beale: “I was told I didn’t deserve to be alive”

The former CEO of Lloyd's of London reveals the leadership lessons that shaped her career...

Read like a CEO: James Reed

The recruitment boss discusses the books that give him business ideas and management inspiration.

What British business can learn from the French

Forget the cliches - our old rival is hotbed of management innovation and is leading...