Sir Alex FergusonI just watched Nick Robinson’s piece on Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership abilities and what we can learn from him. It’s running on BBC iplayer for the next few weeks.

Obviously as a life long Man United fan, it’s fascinating. The themes of respect, discipline and hard work. The daily recognition of every single member of staff. The belief in the youth talent system. And the difference in purpose: to make it the best club in the world, not just the winning first team. Never accepting less than the maximum effort, expectations never flagging, anger if not performing up to capability. And always the human factors such as listening, compassion, insight, re-learning. Treating each person differently, as themselves. And being ruthless in rebuilding teams that are at the top, to use potential, to build the next team which is going to be at the top.

Partly filmed in a lecture room I remember well from London Business School, a particular conversation struck me. The importance he attached to the school of mum & dad. It’s something I learned at LBS from John Hunt‘s fabulous john hunt LBSOrganisational Behaviour courses. (Wow – just saw he died 5 days ago – RIP). How an individual’s attitude was formed by their background and their mum and dad. In his own case and in the players he grew or recruited. His insight into getting mum on board, not just the talented kid.

The documentary is brilliantly put together by Nick Robinson. But it’s perhaps missing one vital thing when you start looking at your own leadership style. Context. DNA. History. Where you apply yourself, where you work.

Sir Alex walked closely in the footprints created by another legendary Scottish leader, Sir Matt Busby sometime before him. The DNA of United was founded on developing youth talent and bringing it through early within a family atmosphere, with a disciplined upbringing and hard working ethos. Well maybe George Best skipped the last bit.

A few stories to bring out the DNA. As a kid I can remember Denis Law used to visit someone in the next street. You always knew because of his MkII Jag and a crowd of kids would assemble. He was always smiles, joviality and politeness personified. Sir Bobby Charlton is still the epitome of a great footballer. He was only ever cautioned twice in his career. I can still name Sir Matt’s team that were first to win the European Cup. That team oused respect for ‘the manager’ and the fans in the same way Sir Alex’s players eloquently do on screen. They were down to earth and respected the fans – the customers in their trade.

My mum used to often see the Beckhams or the Rooneys shopping in the supermarket. They always said hello and were never upset when asked for an autograph. They were down to earth and respected the fans – the customers in their trade.

And that comes from the manager having respect for everyone. As the film shows the canteen and laundry staff are an important part of the team.

A little aside to illustrate. My dad had the job of putting a new tannoy system at Old Trafford  in the ’70s. As often was the case, we kids would go to work during school holidays and my youngest brother Philip went out to Old Trafford. Now for the rest of the family that would have been brilliant, except Phil has the defective gene and supports City.

So back at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, Sir Matt walks the walk and comes to say hello to the engineers working on the tannoy systems. He meets wee Philip and in broad scots: “Hey laddie, whad’y’a think of Old Trafford then?” ” I think it’s rubbish, I’m a City fan!” came the small voice. You can imagine the laughter.

So what’s my point?

1) Leaders notice and respect people and in return earn respect.  Jose Morhino tells the story of how, after being beaten by Porto, Sir Alex came into the Porto dressing room to say well done to the Porto players and how it changed him.

Leaders are people who say hello to everyone, every day.

Watch them do it. Do you do it?

2) Leaders have strong beliefs, attitudes and expectations. They believe in things so much they can’t and won’t change that about themselves. What do you believe in? Do you stand up for it and change the organisation around you?

3) Organisations have history and strong DNA. Often you feel it can’t be changed. As Tony Blair puts it, in the film, you try to do the best within the system rather than changing the system. Can you consciously describe the system around you?

If not how, will you know how to change the way people work in the organisation. It is the job of leaders to change the way things work so it’s better for everyone; fans, customers, staff, people.

4) Know yourself and know your organisation.  Bring the two together and you will max your potential and your performance.

I see Man United are down to third in the table. Not good enough. Only top is good enough for Man United.

You can watch Nick Robinson’s film at Sorry if you’re outside the UK, it won’t run.Sir Alex Ferguson