Success and succession: What lessons can we take from Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign and retirement?

Sir Alex Ferguson's reign at Manchester United has been extremely sucessful

Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United has been extremely sucessful

As a lifelong Manchester United fan I was left in a state of befuddlement when I learnt that Sir Alex Ferguson was retiring at the end of this week as manager of the English football champions. But as I recovered from the news, I realized that the great manager had left at the right time and in the right way.

When Ferguson became manager in 1986, he found a team that was living on past glory (and the odd Cup triumph) and a squad that was full of drunkards. In fact, the captain and talisman of the team, Bryan Robson (aka Captain Marvel) was the worst offender. Instead of trying to buy his way out of trouble like some modern managers, he slowly but surely changed the club from within by revitalizing the scouting system and encouraging youth. Of course this ‘slow but sure’ approach took a lot of time (he did not win his first major trophy until 1990) but the board stayed the course and kept faith with him.

The team that finally won the Premiership for him included United legends like Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Andrei Kanchelskis. This team then won him a few more. But instead of sitting on the team’s laurels he dismantled it, replacing it with a team of youngsters like Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. Journalists thought that Ferguson had lost the plot, but history proves that he made the right call replacing the veterans.

So, after thirteen Premiership trophies, two Champions Leagues, five FA Cups, ten Charity Shields, one UEFA Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup, he decided to call it a day. And not did he only call it quits, he also ensured that the next manager would be someone he recommended.

Supporting the wrong team? President Kagame is a huge Arsenal FC fan. But his management style is more Fergie than Wenger

Supporting the wrong team? President Kagame is a huge Arsenal FC fan. But his management style is more Fergie than Wenger

Why am I writing all this (other than to rub rival fans noses in it) is because I see certain likeness between the boss of United and the CEO of Rwanda Inc, President Kagame. Both entered their respective arena with huge challenges (although I would have to say that the Kagame had far greater issues dealing with the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi than Sir Alex ever had), both systematically weeded out the subversive elements in the ‘dressing room’ (Kayumba et al), both believed and invested in youth (Just visit any government department. The number of Under-30’s will astound you), both have led their respective ‘sides’ to unremitting triumph despite whatever obstacles they met (whereas Ferguson dealt with the challenges of the Mourinho’s, Mancini’s and Benitez’s, Kagame has dealt with the Kabila’s, Roth’s and ICC’s of this world) and both men’s management style has been studied by Harvard Business School students.

Because of their exemplary leadership and accomplishments, the idea of succession has given both men’s ‘fans’ heart palpitations. In fact one of my fellow columnists, Prof Manasseh Nshuti, has written twelve installments of his popular ‘Change with stability and continuity: A political homework’, a series that tackles the issue of what Rwandans should do post-2017 when President Kagame’s constitutional mandate comes to a close.  However, as Manchester United fans found out, one man couldn’t stay at the top indefinitely, no matter their wishes. But what made the bitter pill more palatable was the fact that, first of all, he’d left at the very top. Secondly, he’d left a structure that would ensure competitiveness for years to come. And thirdly, he’d handpicked a worthy successor in his opinion to ensure that the Manchester United brand of football would continue to live on.

Right now, talk of Kagame’s retirement is a bit premature. However, this doesn’t mean that anything should be taken for granted. A future post- Kagame must be faced head on (no matter when that is). Youth-based development should be continuously natured and our brand of political and economical ‘football’ must become second nature.  Change with stability and continuity is Sir Alex’s parting gift to Manchester United. How we ensure that is not just our leadership’s homework, but ours as well.

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