Management tips from the game of football

Alex Ferguson shared tips to cultivating a winning mentality, handle big egos

In Summary

• Good managers create a learning culture of continuous improvement

Fans at a stadium during a match
Fans at a stadium during a match

It's a game described as putting 22 people in a grass field to chase an inflated piece of leather for 90 minutes. To football fans, the value of the game is much greater than merely sitting to watch teams compete for trophies.

Football, or soccer as it is called in the United States, is the world's most popular sport. Total spending by football fans and clubs across the world is estimated at US$200 billion, twice the size of Kenya's economy.

Apart from the obvious entertainment value of watching football matches, the manner in which football coaches run their clubs offers excellent lessons for other types of managers in government, the private sector and NGOs.

How so? Getting at least a dozen strong-headed personalities of different nationalities to play as one unit is not easy. There are expectations from club fans (the customers) that must be delicately balanced with demands from club owners for profitability. In reality, only one team emerges on top of each league at the end of the playing season. Under such circumstances, it's not hard to see why football coaching is a high-pressure managerial job.


Strive Masiyiwa, a billionaire businessman from Zimbabwe, believes there are important lessons that business leaders can learn from the game of football. One of the key lessons is handling a defeat. "To win is important, but also to handle a defeat and picking up your team after a defeat, is very important. Do it quickly, and prepare for the next game," Masiyiwa advises.

Honesty about the situation is another key takeaway Masiyiwa has observed in football. "Don't glorify mediocrity," he says. "When you lose a game you have lost." From a business angle, the lesson is that if your business is not doing well, stop pretending that things are fine because the only person you are fooling is yourself.

Football is a game based on rules that apply to everybody. Trying to win using your hands instead of your feet, or trying to cut a deal with the football authorities for favours, is cheating, says Masiyiwa. This would be similar to a business person using political influence to frustrate competitors, or making life difficult for them. Doing that, according to Masiyiwa, is not business.

Manchester United's former coach Sir Alex Ferguson's success with the club turned him into a huge celebrity, earning him an invitation to the world-famous Harvard Business School. Ferguson knew how to identify and nurture talented individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona. Their value was not just in scoring goals but also in motivating the rest of the team by example.

"Players like (Ryan) Giggs and (Cristiano) Ronaldo were working so hard that the other fellows had to take themselves and say, 'Now wait a minute, if he can do it, I've got to do it,'" Ferguson said at Harvard. The will to win among the top performers was a strong motivation for the rest of the squad at Manchester United.

"Maybe they didn't have the talent of Ronaldo or Giggs or (Paul) Scholes or (Eric) Cantona, but the desire to be the best made them really important players. So I think examples are set by wanting to be a winner," Ferguson recalls from his coaching days.

One other important lesson from Sir Ferguson was the necessity for strategic planning. He led the world's richest football club for 27 years, something the Football Business Academy (FBA) attributes to him having a long-term vision. "At the forefront of all organisational changes, innovation and cultural transformation stands leadership," the institution says. The greatest football managers possess soft skills, such as relationship building, adapting to change, innovation and lifelong learning. These skills can be transferred from the football pitch to an executive office.

While not every organisation may have a star performer, rewarding employees who live up to the organisation's vision helps set an example for everybody else. "Human resources needs to do its part by publicising and celebrating these icons' contributions as part of the organisation's employment brand," Dr John Sullivan, a consultant, recommends. "It's not just the performance of these superstar individuals in key positions that makes the team highly successful. It's also the fact that these icons are a tremendous recruiting draw for others."

Now you know why football teams pay lots of money for star players such as Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé or Harry Kane. It also explains why exceptional professionals are head-hunted by employers.


Once you have star performers in your team, another set of challenges emerges. Star performers believe they cannot be fired easily because the employer needs them. According to the Journal of Sports Management, dealing with big egos and convincing even the top performers to be part of the team is a big issue for all managers. What is the best way of dealing with a group of highly paid, highly opinionated staff, often willing to exploit or highlight anything they see as a weakness on the part of their leader?

Good managers are servant leaders. "The days of the dictator coach are behind us," Robert Steers, a marketing and leadership expert, contends. "We need to find other methods of teaching and relating to people that are more meaningful than 'my way or the highway'. Employees, just like football players, now want to know "why" something is being done. Managers should always have an answer to this question.

Steers suggests that anybody aspiring for leadership first learn how to coach a football team of teenagers. "Think of it as a safe playground, where you can train your leadership skills. You have to learn influence and leadership without the same role power you have at work," Steers says.

Rather than paying attention to good performance, many employers and managers spend lots of time on poorly performing employees because of the many problems they cause. Talent is often left alone. According to the Financial Times, ignoring the high performers can discourage them.

"Talented people usually have a gift for learning and a desire to improve," reads an article in the newspaper. "If the manager shows he cares about the talent's career by helping the talent improve, the talent will develop trust in the manager." Good managers create a learning culture of continuous improvement.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star