How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson – the business of winning and managing success

Think Progress Team

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Sports and business psychologist author Damian Hughes talks to Think Progress about managing change, being ruthless and how to handle feedback.

The fundamental message in your book, How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson, is how important it is to be able to cope with change. In a business environment, who is responsible for how employees manage change? The team leaders or the employees?

Both. First of all, it’s important that your team, in business or in sport, is made up of people who have the right attitude, ability and aptitude to manage change.

In business it isn’t enough to just recruit people simply based on their talent. You have to look at their character as well and find the people who can adapt positively to change.

Walt Disney is a great example. When he interviewed executives he used to take them out for lunch. If the person put salt or pepper onto their food without first tasting it then he believed it meant that the person was inflexible. To him, the chance that this behaviour could transfer to the workplace was too much of a risk.

Another recent example is a rugby team that I’ve been working with. They were recruiting for an assistant physio and were inundated with a huge amount of CVs from people who had all the right qualifications. However, they wanted people who were adaptable and had an ability to think on their feet – hugely important attributes for a sports physio. So I told them to select their five favourite candidates and to invite them in for a meeting but to give them the wrong interview address. Of the five who were invited for interview, only two had the initiative to check the address and confirm the correct location in advance. The other three didn’t even turn up and the club never heard from them.


In the book you mention Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice to Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications) which was that “You have to be ruthless to cope with pressure.” Does the same lesson apply in the workplace?

Sir Alex Ferguson expected loyalty from all his players. That loyalty came in three parts. Loyalty to yourself, loyalty to the team and loyalty to the organisation. The best teams in sport and business have all three. It’s about having people who share your organisation’s core belief.

So, yes when that core belief or goal is under threat you have to respond quickly and positively. It can be difficult but when making a decision under pressure it’s important to realise the difference between ‘reacting’ and ‘responding’. If your decision is a knee-jerk one and in the moment, you are reacting. If you are looking at the bigger picture then you are responding.

When any player came close to showing that he wasn’t loyal then Sir Alex Ferguson would be ruthless. The story of David Beckham, one of Manchester United’s best players, is a good example of somebody who Ferguson thought was thinking about himself more than the team. In the end, Ferguson responded and got rid of him. It didn’t hurt the team in the long run as they went on to win many more trophies.


Delivering and acting on feedback is a vital part of business. What lessons can we learn from the sporting world on how to deal with feedback?

Feedback is crucial, in sport and business. It helps us adapt and improve.

And who you receive feedback from is equally important. One of my favourite quotes on this topic comes from Dr Seuss, the American writer and cartoonist. He said, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

In other words, it’s crucial you recognise the importance of where your feedback comes from. You should pick people who you respect and who will give you an honest and practical assessment.

You should also ensure that you get feedback on your strengths as well as your development needs. You should always learn to maximise your strengths as well as managing your weaknesses.

In his time at Manchester United, Ferguson had seven assistant managers. He had the humility to listen to every one of them and that was one aspect of his character that helped him win so many trophies.

Professor Damian Hughes is an international speaker and best-selling author who combines his practical and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture. His latest book ‘How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson’ is out now.