Passing the Baton

How leaders ensure continuity and seal their legacy

The most recent JSA blog ended by mentioning Nelson Mandela and his 27-year imprisonment, which helped him to prepare to be the leader of the new South Africa in 1994. What it did not mention was the incredible fact that after waiting so long, he served only one five-year term before making way for his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. 

Not only do great global leaders take responsibility and decisive action during their reigns of power but they also ensure that their good work will continue long after they are gone by carefully planning for their succession and grooming their successors. 

A recent example of this comes from the most popular sport in the world: football (or soccer as it is known in the USA).

Last month, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is one of most well known, successful and feared managers on the planet, suddenly announced his retirement as the coach of Manchester United, which is in turn one of the richest and most widely followed teams in the universe. It has no less than 14 different nations represented in its first team squad. (No hyperbole here, of course, although this blogger does need to confess that he has been a rabid fan of his home town club for most of his 54 years).

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Sir Alex’s end-of-season announcement should not have come as a surprise as he is now 71 years old and he has been at the helm for 27 years during which time he has won every trophy available. 38 glittering prizes in all. Most recently the English Premier League for a record 13th time.

Sir Alex revealed soon afterwards that he had been preparing for this shock news for quite some time, carefully considering, interviewing and picking his successor.

He could have gone for an international superstar, such as Jose Mourinho, who has achieved great success with four different clubs in four different countries in the last 10 years. He is also a personal friend and wine drinking buddy of Sir Alex, he was about to leave his latest club Real Madrid and he had made no secret of his desire to return to England and possibly succeed Sir Alex.

Instead, “The Special One” went back to rivals Chelsea and Sir Alex and the MU board chose another feisty Glaswegian, David Moyes, who does not in any way represent the glamour and success of Mourinho, but has a solid record of thoughtfulness, resourcefulness and consistency during his 11 years of leading another famous – if cash-strapped – club, Everton FC, which is just up the road in Liverpool.

The two men have established a deep relationship of mutual respect and trust over the years and now Sir Alex will hang around in the background to help guide and mentor his successor to new heights with Manchester United and at the same he will preserve his own unrivalled legacy.

While the 38 “pieces of silverware” are the most tangible signs of Sir Alex’s success, there are some other universal lessons to be drawn for current and future global leaders:

  • Sir Alex had a clear long-term vision and he was patient, resilient and persistent. He knew that it took a lot of time to shape and re-shape the players and teams that he worked with. Inheriting a storied but flagging enterprise in the mid 1980’s, it was five years before he won the first of his many league titles with MU. The board was also patient and trusting and they were amply rewarded.
  • A big part of his strategy was to identify and nurture young players from near and abroad and many of his star players, such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, came up through the ranks. In fact, Ryan Giggs is still going strong at the advanced age of 39 after 660 appearances and 25 years at the club.

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  • Famous for his in-your-face “hairdryer” treatment of underperforming players, he was actually a caring and deft people manager, carefully massaging the egos of his many home-grown and expensively drafted superstars. And he always knew when it was time to send them on their way if their heads got too big for their boots. Team Unity always came before Individual Talent as the sudden departures of the likes of David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy showed.

No one knows what will be on Sir Alex’s gravestone if he ever does decide to leave this earth but don’t be surprised if it is one of his many colorful self-descriptions. One of the most fitting might be: “I’m a tough bugger but I’m a fair bugger”.

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