The curious incident of the player in the queue

Damian Hughes guest lecture on Leadership for a Sustainable Future.Professor Damian Hughes was a guest on the Today programme (Radio 4) this morning. An advocate for a more ‘right-brained’ (creative) approach to business, Hughes’ latest book looks at leadership and what we can learn from successful practitioners like Sir Alex Ferguson.

At first glance, this seems like a well-trodden path but Hughes delivers some great insights and claims that although we can learn lessons from sport and apply them in business, we mustn’t lose sight of how different those two worlds actually are. It’s easy to drop a poorly performing footballer, but trickier to fire a lousy employee!

But the thing that struck me during the interview this morning was a small story which tells us a lot about Ferguson. During the Cristiano Ronaldo years when the Portuguese star was a prolific scorer for United, there was an incident in the canteen at Old Trafford. A young player was queuing for his meal when he noticed Ronaldo behind him. Somewhat overawed, he stepped aside and let the star go first. Ferguson noticed it, took the young player aside and gave him a mild hair-dryer treatment. “How can you expect to be a great player if you don’t believe in yourself? Never step aside for anyone!”

I’ve paraphrased but this was the gist of Fergie’s message.

Two points here – first, belief is everything in life. If you question your own ability to achieve something, chances are you’ll be right.

Second, it underlines the power of small stories and the degree to which we read a lot of meaning into small behaviours. That’s why the ‘micro moments’ in business (like the way we shake hands or the way we answer the phone) are crucial for influencing the way people feel about us.

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