David Moyes: The Psychology of Failure
Look at the photograph of David Moyes playing football with the lads and imagine Alex Ferguson doing this. Only under very rare, ritualised circumstances, would Ferguson, the alpha-male primate, allow his all-powerful dominant image be tainted with any hint of ‘being one of the lads’.
Ferguson maintained a delicate balance between the ruthless extraction of unquestioning obedience from his “lads” on the one hand, and nurturing them, father-like, on the other. Any would-be alpha males – Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham spring to mind, among others – who even hinted that they might rival his alpha male status were crushed and expelled from the troop.
David Moyes never established himself as the dominant member of the troop, and that is why he failed. How could he impose his authority on Ryan Giggs, for instance, other than by sacking or humiliating him? – And that was neither politically possible, nor probably within the scope of Moyes’ personality to do so.
So, from the very beginning, Moyes was a lame-duck leader who wanted to be liked more than he wanted to dominate. Leadership is lonely and the best managers have an appetite for power that is greater than their need for acceptance. The boss can’t be one of the lads.
Few things bond a group more closely than a strong external threat, and Ferguson was that threat to his team, when need be. A team bonded like this performs better. Moyes wasn’t enough of a dominating threat to the team and this was a factor in their underperformance.
You might ask, how could a leadership genius like Ferguson blunder so profoundly by pushing Moyes as his replacement? There are a couple of probable reasons: First, consciously or unconsciously, Ferguson was trying to keep his position as the alpha male of Manchester United. In his mind, I would guess, Moyes was one of his “lads” over whom he could cast his spell of psychological dominance combined with fatherly nurturance.
A second reason is vanity. The sort of power which Ferguson wielded as a celebrity manger can cause changes in the brain which result in egocentricity which can transmute into a touch of narcissism. Ferguson chose Moyes because he was in some ways like himself – Scottish, dour, hard-working, gives attention to detail. But he differed in one important respect: Ferguson would never have allowed himself to be father-figured – maybe even patronized? – in the way that Moyes did in allowing himself to be brought under the protecting wings of the great alpha male in the stand.
Leadership is stressful, and the best antidote to stress is power. But because of his failure to dominate his team – this would probably have required the ritual (psychological) slaying of the old alpha male – Moyes did not benefit from the antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties of power.
Hence the post-match briefings which were full of the language of failure and submission – “we didn’t”, “we don’t”, “we couldn’t” … and so on. It always seemed to be “we”, not “they”. But the team needed more “they”.
After all, he was just one of the lads, wasn’t he?