Magazine article Newsweek

A Scot at Harvard: Lessons of the Beautiful Game; How Much Can Business Leaders Learn from Soccer's Most Successful Coach?

Magazine article Newsweek

A Scot at Harvard: Lessons of the Beautiful Game; How Much Can Business Leaders Learn from Soccer's Most Successful Coach?

Article excerpt

Byline: Trevor Dann

If America's post-World-Cup love affair with soccer survives well into next year, Harvard Business School may have to put out some more chairs for its program titled the Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports. One of its guest lecturers will be the man Harvard describes as "the greatest soccer coach in history," Sir Alex Ferguson.

But this academic validation, such as it is, comes at a time when Ferguson's reputation is being questioned. If great leaders are to be judged by their legacy, then Ferguson's is already tarnished. Since he retired in May 2013, Manchester United, the soccer club he led to 13 English league titles and 25 other major trophies in 26 years, has been in a tailspin.

His chosen successor, David "Fergie-Lite" Moyes, took them to just seventh place in the English Premier League, causing them to miss out on the lucrative European Champions League, which in 2013-2014 earned the club $53 million in broadcasting revenue. Deloitte estimates that the loss of Champions League soccer could cost the club up to $84 million.

The club's official games shirt sponsor, Nike, has ended its $40 million annual contract with the club, saying "the terms that were on offer did not represent good value for Nike's shareholders." And although a new world-record shirt sponsorship deal worth $944 million over seven years has been signed with General Motors (Chevrolet), Nike's statement must have sent a shudder through a business that still carries $657 million in debt. Its owners are the Florida-based Glazer family, who attracted much attention in 2010 when they sought $844 million to refinance the $886 million they borrowed in 2005 to engineer their leveraged takeover.

The chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, has even warned that the club's recent failures have damaged the English Premier League brand worldwide. He told Bloomberg: "When your most popular club isn't doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places. There's lots of fans around the world who wish they were winning it again." The Premier League is reported to have earned around $3.77 billion from the sales of its overseas rights to live games for a three-year period, 2013 to 2016, with Asia contributing the major share of $1.59 billion.

The club's new coach, Louis van Gaal, who took the Netherlands to third place in the 2014 World Cup, is wasting no time in changing Man U's style of play, demanding changes to its training facilities, complaining about the club's preseason schedule and distancing himself from Fergie's style.

While no one doubts Ferguson's credentials as a soccer club manager, questions need to be asked about his methods and just how transferable they might be to a business environment. He seems an unlikely model of a modern business manager for whom teamwork and harmony are prized and old-fashioned discipline is just plain uncool. So what are Harvard students likely to learn about business from this autocratic, notoriously bad-tempered 72-year-old former trade union shop steward and pub landlord?

Anyone seeking the answer in Ferguson's most recent autobiography will be disappointed by its blend of platitudes and folksy musings: "Don't show any weakness."-- "The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go."-- "The thing every good leader should have is an instinct." "The Scotsman abroad doesn't lack humor."

But Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse claims to have found more depth after extensive interviews with Ferguson, his assistants, former Man U chief executive David Gill (who left at the same time as Ferguson) and some of Ferguson's players. She published her findings in the Harvard Business Review in October last year, distilling Fergie's leadership philosophy to eight points which, she says, "can be applied more broadly to business and to life. …

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