Why Sir Alex is greatest leader we have

Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Alex had a gift for managing wayward talent

Judgement, perspective, balance.

That's what the BBC expects from you when they give you the title "Editor".

So, you may wonder, what on earth was I thinking of when I was so easily wrong-footed by John Humphrys asking me a softball question yesterday?

It was not even about politics. It was about the then rumour about the retirement of a football manager.

Throwing caution to the winds and with a smile which I fear was not entirely audible over the airwaves I declared Sir Alex Ferguson to be the "Greatest Living Briton." That's right - not Tim Berners Lee or Stephen Hawking; nor Her Majesty the Queen or JK Rowling or the numerous other worthy candidates that instantly filled my twitter stream. No, I spontaneously gave the accolade to Fergie.

There is a reason for this and it is not merely the deeply ingrained tribal loyalty of a boy who still remembers the thrill of his first visit to the Stretford End or the tingle of excitement when offered a job as a paperboy by a former United star (in those days retired footballers had to work for a living).

As someone paid to observe and analyse leaders and potential leaders for a living, I have yet to see one to match Sir Alex.

Like the impresario of a great opera company or the chief executive of a mighty corporation he succeeded so much and survived for so long because he understood people - how to motivate them, how to discipline them and how to inspire them.

When this year Harvard Business School asked Fergie to share some of his secrets he explained how as a young manager he studied and learnt from leaders in other walks of life - watching a classical concert for the first time in his life he admired the co-ordination and the teamwork and spoke to his players about the orchestra and how they are a perfect team.

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Media captionNick Robinson: "He didn't merely manage teams, he created them."

He didn't merely manage teams, he created them.

Many of the stars of the past twenty five years would, without him, have been regarded as too wayward - too crazy even - to make it elsewhere.

Think of Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick on a fan who shouted abuse at him or Roy Keane's frequent red mists or Peter Schmeichel's ranting at his own defence.

What Ferguson understood is the need to channel their anger away from self-destruction and towards their shared goal - victory on the pitch.

For a boy from the shipyards of Govan and a convinced socialist this was no mean feat when confronted with the young, sometimes immature and spoilt stars of the modern age but this was his simple message to them: "I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out."

Now, do I hear you cry - "for goodness sake, it's only football?"

Are you one of the many who think there's been too much fuss and wonder how I could allow myself to be distracted on the day the government unveiled its new legislative programme?

My answer is clear. Ferguson was the leader not of a mere football team. He was the mastermind of one of Britain's leading brands. Manchester United is a global language even for those who do not speak English.

It is - love it or loathe it or simply couldn't care less about it - one of this country's institutions.

Its leader for more than 25 years was no saint. There are many on and off the pitch who can testify to that.

He, I suspect, would be the first to laugh at the idea he's "the greatest living Briton."

However, his achievements demand not just respect. They deserve to be studied and learnt from by those who think that leadership is a rare commodity and it matters.

And, don't worry, in future I'll stick to the day job.