Sir Alex Ferguson: The Way Not to Lead a Church

Manchester United is in a shambles, and I for one am glad.  Gloating even.  Being an Arsenal supporter the past twenty years has been bittersweet.  Some victories over those evil geniuses, but way too many losses, especially in the last ten minutes of a match.  And why has this happened?  Well partly because of the ageing player list, partly because other teams such as Liverpool have been magnificent (sadly not Arsenal among that crew), but mostly, mostly, mostly because of Sir Alex Ferguson.

What? you say!  Wasn’t he the most successful manager ever?  Didn’t he win title after title, brook no rivals, rule with an iron fist, kick out anyone who wasn’t 100 per cent with him, and generally run the show, abuse the referees and demand – and get – whatever he wanted?

Yep to all of that.  And Manchester United were a force to be reckoned with, always in the hunt for the title and the match, always winning games in extra time.  Until this year.  Until Ferguson left. Until Ferguson installed his anointed successor, David Moyes.  David Moyes, who will go down in history as the John Major to Margaret Thatcher (as one London scribe put it). David Moyes, who will struggle to come back from this after spending a whole career virtually at Everton waiting for this moment.  David Moyes, the only manager for whom Ferguson never had a bad word, never a fall-out, and who was always just one conversation away in the United boardroom from being touted as next manager. That’s what Ferguson wanted, and that’s what Ferguson got.

Pity it train wrecked Manchester United’s 2014 season.

So what has this to do with church leadership and church planting?  Well this: Sir Alex Ferguson has shown us every way possible how not to plant a church.  And he has shown us every way possible how to plant a church without any real idea of who could succeed him. Let’s face it, there are some really gifted Sir Alex Fergusons in the church planting world out there. They turn up and things happen. Big things happen.  And whilst those big things are happening, lots of people get excited, the church grows quickly and heads the table going into the pointy end of the season.  These Sir Alexes get things done, and that’s great.  But often they get things done exactly the way Sir Alex got things done.  By being the last word on everything.  All of the time. Never brooking a difference of opinion.  Racking up a body count who end up playing in the local leagues because they got burnt by the boss, or worse still, giving the game away entirely and only watching Match of the Day.

Church leaders like Sir Alex tend to have a vague succession plan in mind, but also lack the requisite people skills to attract the really great leaders who might continue their work.  They tend to attract the “yes men” who know that getting the boss offside is a bad thing so they don’t do it.  They tend to attract people whose skill level will never rise above theirs, one because it can’t, and two, because it daren’t!  Sir Alex church leader types are inherently suspicious, resentful even, of those who are better than they are at something.  Not openly, but often surreptitiously.  They tend to overlook the really gifted because they are a little bit, dare I say, jealous?

Sir Alex Ferguson leader types are always talking about succession plans, but in their slightly narcissistic heart of hearts, no one is as good as they, so what they do is they go out and look for a shadow, a moon, a pale reflection of themselves.  And often they will find that person hanging around already, always eager to step up, always eager to think they can do the job.  Which of course they will probably have to because all of the really great leaders who once hung around, the ones who stood up to Sir Alex (CHURCH LEADER NAME INSERTED HERE) when he was getting it wrong, have gone off to plant their own gig, and raise their own team of leaders.  Sir Alex types mistakenly believe that the way to attract a set of strong leaders around you is to be the uber-alpha male.  This betrays a huge lack of insight. This betrays a fatal lack of self-understanding.  Strong leadership flourishes around leaders who are not threatened by those who are better than they.  Strong leadership flourishes around an equally strong leader who is not an alpha-male and doesn’t feel the need to always win at table-tennis during the lunch break, be the best preacher or be the one to come up with all of the great ideas (or take credit for them!).

It remains to be seen what will happen with Manchester United in 2015 (is hoping for relegation a bridge too far? – Ed), but it will take more than just a good manager.  It will take a leader who can rebuild the team and the confidence within the boardroom.  It will take a person who can attract the right leaders around him, and who can stand out from the shadow of Sir Alex and all his gifts.

And what does that teach us about church leadership?  It tells us that when such a leader leaves a church there are no guarantees.  No surety that relegation won’t follow.  No proof – and plenty of evidence otherwise – that a vacuum won’t be left behind which the church struggles to fill, and for which the current second tier of leadership is ill-equipped to sort out.  It’s tempting to be a Sir Alex, but if the year after you leave things have fallen in a heap in a church, then the finger pointing will begin. Oh, and it’s worth remembering that the Owner – unlike the disinterested Glazer family that owns Man Utd – has more than just money invested in its success.


  1. Hi Steve, haven’t had the chance to meet you yet mate and hope to one day! Heard great things about the work you do. Got forwarded this post due to the depth of my Man United roots! Haha!

    Agree on every front of the actual leadership front, totally disagree (of course I can imagine people saying) on the Ferguson example. He certainly wasn’t as bad a leader as has been painted here. Especially considering none of his second in charges have gone on to hate him or speak out against him. He had staff leave and to my knowledge (which is known to make errors), none have had too any bad words to say. May I add he has also had a significant part in many managerial careers. Many clubs have been built by people who have been built up by Fergie. I wouldn’t say much normally but considering a lot of the above is based on him as an illustration, I felt it was worth saying my bit. Not to make too big a deal out of a football thing with the principle focus being a leadership thing, I think there’s an argument to say Fergie released leaders well. Yup some didn’t see his vision and they left and more often than not it was more to do with their lack of respect for the United way than him (Keane being a great example). Anyway, the leadership stuff…gold, using Fergie as the primary example of bad leadership…harsh I reckon. Thankfully it’s the football stuff we’ll not see eye to eye on…not the Kingdom stuff 😉

  2. Hehe! Yeah I must admit I was pushing it a bit! Perhaps I have blended Sir Alex into some poor church leaders I have known and come up with a scary hybrid! I will say this for Sir Alex on the football front, he got rid of Man Utd’s drinking culture first up and sorted out the Big Ron Atkinson party club.
    And would be good to meet and talk all things football, er, church!

    1. Haha meeting up sounds good! Of course if we’re going after bad mangers who could be worse than (insert Liverpool/Spurs manger)!! Plus there is always Felix Magath! Blessings mate!

  3. Hi Steve – great column as usual. A quick comment though…in relation to Ferguson – leadership can be a very different experience from the inside, compared to what people on the outside view.
    Seeing a few churches over the years and recognising rampant career leaders in many different church and para-church organisations, asking the coal-face workers can often yield the best profile of the leader(jaundiced as it may be) – unless you ask the leader themselves – that can be just as telling!
    The truly great leader draws attention to the task and away from themselves – humility is a magnificent quality…there was not much of it around in the eighties!
    Hebrews 2 is a pretty good example.

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