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Leadership lessons from a retiring manager

A certain someone became manager of an institution when I was still a greenhorn at university. He retired last week, having clocked a full 26 years in the job, at a time when I myself entertain thoughts of retirement. In those years I have changed jobs, even occupations, several times; the gentleman I refer to did the same thing in the same place, week in, week out.

Sir Alex Ferguson had his last game as manager of Manchester United last month. He won an astonishing 38 trophies in charge of the world-famous team. His kind may never be seen again. Love him or hate him (and most of the world is in one of those two camps), you cannot argue with his success, whichever team you happen to support.

Ferguson divides opinion. Some have called him the greatest living Briton, who could have been a leader in any field; others see him as a mean old bully and a nasty piece of work. So it often is with the great achievers; they leave a trail of corpses, even as they excite manic admiration.

What should we learn from this famous Scotsman for our own lives? I will stay away from the evaluations of his personality and style that have been done to death in the world media. The man’s nature is not the interesting thing; there is something deeper at play here.

The first thing to note is that prolonged success, of the type Ferguson achieved, does not come from being unyielding and rigid. He may have been an ‘old-school’ manager when he joined United, but he was canny enough to spot the many changes in the game, on the field and off, and adjust himself to accommodate them. He changed his formations of play over the years, for example; and embraced the arrival of TV and corporate money in the game.

And yet he did not just blow with the prevailing wind; there were things he simply wouldn’t change in any circumstances. These include always putting the club first, above any star player (no matter how individually famous); cultivating a strict honour code amongst his players; and having a core playing ethos that valued play beginning at the back and turning into a lightning-fast counterattack.

Manchester United teams have changed many times over the years; those central principles have not. They in turn caused another ‘intangible’ to appear: a winning mentality. No United team in my memory has arrived on a pitch not believing it can win the game. That never-say-die attitude, more than anything, is Ferguson’s greatest legacy.

That’s the lesson that’s worth reflecting on. Long-term success is about knowing what to change, and what to keep the same. Products, markets, channels, and tactics can all change, and should; value systems and beliefs never should.

In essence, the only sustainable competitive advantage is not in your star employees, your winning products; your current locations. It is in your most intangible asset: your CULTURE. Culture creates the mentality and behaviour you need to win and keep winning; to get up from defeat without losing hope; to believe in something bigger than individual gain.

That’s what Manchester United has had for a generation, and that no other English team has been able to replicate in recent times. Because culture can’t be bought or copied; it can only be nurtured. Painstakingly. Over a long time. Will it last, now that Ferguson has gone? Did he create a system independent of personality? Time will tell, but I don’t expect United to implode suddenly.

And that, Kenyans, is why it’s going to take quite a while before many of our organizations can become world-beaters; and why our economy won’t take off and keep flying just yet. Winning cultures take time, and must be built by resolute leaders with passionate belief in a few core values.

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