7 May 2018

level 5 leader - listening costs you nothingWhen you are wanting to develop as a leader, where do you look for inspiration?

In Manchester it’s been easy, as when you think of a world-class, extraordinary leader, we have one our doorstep: Sir Alex Ferguson.

His leadership style at Manchester United is one I don’t think we’ll ever see replicated. Certainly at his old club and arguably in sport in general. He is a perfect example of a Level 5 Leader; a concept coined by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. A Level 5 Leader is an extraordinary motivating character, but there is a great deal more to their success than that. They are also incredibly humble.

I’ve met him a few times and I’ve left every encounter inspired and motivated to become a better leader and learn his lessons.

My first encounters with him were when I was a pianist in the Midland Hotel. Alex, (not a Sir at this stage in his career) was a good friend of the General Manager, Sean McCarthy and they used to sit around until the early hours on a Saturday night with a couple of the old timers from the Coronation Street cast. I was always more than happy staying a little later tinkling the ivories for them all. It’s seems so long ago, yet it’s only a few years since he retired.

It was just another day to me back then, he wasn’t the superstar legend he is now. He was just a nice bloke who always said hello, someone who laughed out loud a lot and clearly enjoyed a glass of red wine and great company.

Level 5 Leader

Studying Ferguson over the years it became clear he creates a special bond and team spirit in whatever he does; he’s a warm charismatic man who understands and genuinely cares for his people around him. Whilst he’s occasionally portrayed as a tough Scot; a leader who doesn’t take prisoners, that’s a small part of what he does, and probably more act, certainly in his later stage of his career, than reality. His warmth and generosity more than balance his fierce temper and it’s precisely this that earns him the respect and friendship of everyone he comes in contact with.

I have no doubt that if he’d been in business, he’d have done exactly what he did in the corridors at Old Trafford. His style of leadership is transferable. Ferguson creates a bastion based on extraordinarily high standards. Once everyone is bought in to his high standards, the rest takes care of itself. If you don’t want to play ball, quite literally, his style would never suffer fools. But it’s this brutal clarity that meant everyone understood their place and exactly what was expected.

You can’t win anything with kids

Amongst his greatest accolades during his 26 year tenure at United, he took a team of kids and turned them into one of the most successful British teams of all time. He was mocked by “experts” and told ‘you can’t win anything with kids’, but he ignored the negativity and used it as motivation to inspire the youngsters in his team.

I’ve had similar conversations in business when talking about young recruits and our apprenticeship programme. Many employers see young people and apprentices an opportunity to get a bit of cheap labour. The minimum wage actually pays younger people less! Something I don’t agree with at all.

Sir Alex nurtured young talent and made them feel valued. It is a style we adopted at UKFast, yet so many business leaders assume that experience alone is all that’s necessary to create a winning team. There is often too much focus on hiring a single saviour, big hitters for your sales department or a leader like a CEO or MD. It’s amazing how many struggle with the notion that young people can revolutionise a business. This is the wrong attitude. In fact, we’ve found the opposite! 

Experience v skills

We have found older people coming in with “experience” are often very set in their ways and less willing to learn and be flexible. Young people on the other hand, simply need direction. When made to feel valued and part of a team, their extra energy is boundless and invaluable when creating momentum. I find younger recruits spur on the older teammates and ensure they don’t sit on their laurels. This was definitely the case with the Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the Neville brothers era, who all earned places in the first team by the extra effort they put in on the training ground. How many of the old guard did they displace? How much harder did the older players like Keane and Pallister have to work right up to retirement to keep their places week in week out?

So why is it that some leaders bet on youngsters and others hang their hopes on experience?

Do you remember the first time someone bet on you and gave you a chance to step up and rise to the occasion? Of course you do! And how hard did you work to ensure you never let that person down? Yet, in spite of these momentous moments in our own lives, all too often the majority of leaders play it safe and take the easy option, recruiting their team on expertise and qualifications rather than passion and effort.

At UKFast, we have learned to pick on passion over qualifications every time. Don’t get me wrong if we find passionate people who are highly qualified, of course we quickly hire them, however they are rare. It’s the passionate youngsters who want to learn, they are the ones to bet on, the ones we get really excited about.


I talk about balance quite often and when bringing in young talent, like Ferguson did regularly, you need exactly that. He created a blend of the old and the new. I look at all my teams now and I have people on them that span from a matter of weeks in the business to others who have been with me for 15 to 18 years.

It’s this blend that works for me and most of all, works for the team. The youngsters enjoy having people to help them develop faster. Often the old ones (whilst they might not admit it) enjoy being kept on their toes.

It’s great to reflect on different management styles when trying to improve your own. There are always things you can take away from studying successful people.

So whilst we all wait anxiously to hear news of Sir Alex and his recovery, it’s lovely to hear so many people, players, managers, past and present speak so highly of him. This in itself speaks volumes about the man.

Wishing you a speedy recovery from everyone at UKFast Sir Alex.

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