Skip to Content

Legendary Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson has some business advice for you

Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful soccer coach in British history. He has won 49 trophies at national and European levels over a 40-year career in one of the most intensely competitive areas of human activity. So when he holds forth on the subject of leader-ship, it pays to listen.

His new book, Leading: Learning From Life and My Years at Manchester United, is a joint effort with Sir Michael Moritz, a former Time journalist, a longtime partner at Sequoia Capital, and a notable early investor in Google, PayPal, and others. With Moritz writing, Ferguson traverses ground that’s familiar not only to any sports fan but also to nearly any business leader. What to make of star players with vanity complexes? “I quite embrace the ones with ego,” Ferguson quips during a visit to Fortune’s offices in New York City. “Because they need to win.” What do you do when top performers -demand sky-high salaries? Pay them, because they’re the ones driving results. “[The audience] is there to see the best players, and the best players get paid accordingly,” he says.

Even though Leading is as much of a sports book as it is a business tome, a good deal of its boardroom advice amounts to common sense: A leader must listen and observe; must have discipline, drive, and conviction; must control, but must use power with restraint; must empathize with his followers, but must be willing to ruthlessly sacrifice them for the common good, even to the point—literally, in Ferguson’s case—of selling his own son, a midfielder, to the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Think Machiavelli with a Glaswegian accent.

Yet any staleness in these truisms is dispelled by an ample helping of stardust. Ferguson brings his themes to life with an enviably rich stream of anecdotes. Manchester United’s most beloved stars are trotted out in entertaining tableaux: Cristiano Ronaldo preening in front of the locker-room mirror while his teammates “threw socks and jockstraps at him”; the mountainous Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel “going berserk” in Ferguson’s office after being told that he wouldn’t be made club captain; and David Beckham, lured with painstaking effort away from the clubs around his childhood home in London thanks to the assiduous cultivation of his family (always get the mother on your side).

While the book is an engaging read, it’s not a wholly satisfying one. Although Ferguson often turns an unsparing lens on himself (including the time he was told off by an 8-year-old while talent scouting), it’s ultimately as studiously inoffensive as would befit a book from someone less famously blunt. The occasional crises that peppered Ferguson’s 26-year term at Manchester United, which one might think would provide some of his most teachable moments, mostly escape close examination. The need for control, which Ferguson stresses, seems to apply to the narrative as well as to the business. What remains is a feeling that there is more to leadership, especially Sir Alex Ferguson’s exalted version, than this. 

A version of this article appears in the November 1, 2015 issue of Fortune with the headline “Business lessons from a soccer god.”