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I analyse leaders for a living, and none is as great as Alex Ferguson

Nick Robinson on why he told Today programme listeners that retiring Manchester United manager is ‘greatest living Briton’.

Judgment, perspective, balance. That’s what the BBC expects from you when they give you the title “editor”. So, you may wonder, what on earth was I thinking of when I was so easily wrong-footed by John Humphrys asking a softball question on the Today programme? It was not even about politics. It was about the rumoured retirement of a football manager.

Throwing caution to the wind and with a smile that I fear was not entirely audible over the airwaves, I declared Sir Alex Ferguson to be the “greatest living Briton”. That’s right – not Tim Berners Lee or Stephen Hawking; nor Her Majesty the Queen or JK Rowling or the numerous other worthy candidates that instantly filled my Twitter stream. No, I spontaneously gave the accolade to Fergie.

There is a reason for this and it is not merely the deeply ingrained tribal loyalty of a boy who still remembers the thrill of his first visit to the Stretford End or the tingle of excitement when offered a job as a paperboy by a former United star (in those days retired footballers had to work for a living). As someone paid to observe and analyse leaders and potential leaders for a living, I never saw one to match Sir Alex. Like the impresario of a great opera company or the chief executive of a mighty corporation hHe succeeded so much and survived for so long because he understood people – how to motivate them, how to discipline them and how to inspire them.

When this year Harvard Business School asked Fergie to share some of his secrets, he explained how as a young manager he studied and learned from leaders in other walks of life: “I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the co-ordination and the teamwork – one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.” He didn’t manage teams – he created them.

Many of the stars of the past 25 years would, without him, have been regarded as too wayward – too crazy even – to make it elsewhere. Think of Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick on a fan who shouted abuse at him, or Roy Keane’s frequent red mists, or Peter Schmeichel’s ranting at his defence. What Ferguson understood is the need to channel their anger away from self-destruction and towards their shared goal – victory on the pitch.

For a boy from the shipyards of Govan and a convinced socialist, this was no mean feat when confronted with the young, sometimes immature and spoilt stars of the modern age, but this was his simple message to them: “I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out.”

Now, do I hear you cry, “For goodness’ sake, it’s only football?” Are you one of the many readers of the Guardian and, I’ve no doubt, viewers and listeners of the BBC who think there’s been too much fuss and who wonder how I could allow myself to be distracted not just from my day job but from a more significant event – the Queen’s speech? My answer is clear. Ferguson was the leader not just of a football team. He was the mastermind of one of Britain’s leading brands. Manchester United is a global language even for those who do not speak English. It is – love it or loathe it or simply couldn’t care less about it – one of this country’s institutions.

Sir Alex Ferguson is no saint. There are many on and off the pitch who can testify to that. He, I suspect, would be the first to laugh at the idea that he is the greatest living Briton. However, his achievements demand not just respect. They deserve to be studied and learned from by those who think leadership is a rare commodity and it matters.

This article first appeared in the Guardian 09 May 2013

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