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David Moyes: The Psychology of Failure

April 22, 2014



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? 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2014 8:16 pm

    Professor Robertson how would you outline the character of a high functioning psychopath?

  2. Jake permalink
    April 23, 2014 3:09 am

    Good post, Ian, I had a feeling you’d have something to say about this business!

    It’s interesting the way some strong and successful leaders have a tendency towards choosing unsuitable candidates for their succession – some examples that come to mind are Thatcher and Major, Ahern and Cowan, and now Ferguson and Moyes.

    Helmut Kohl also promoted Angela Merkel for the top job, but she showed her ‘cajones’ (!) by turning on her former mentor and liberating herself, finally driving him out of the CDU and into the political wilderness to his unrelenting bitterness. Something similar here by Ahern in relation to CJ Haughey, and now by Martin to him, a step one would find it hard to imagine Cowan being ‘unreasonable’ enough to do…

    An alternative view of Ferguson, though, would be that in the ‘brave new world’ of global sporting PLCs, announcements of managerial shake-ups to stock exchanges and world-wide investor expectations, the floundering Ferguson of the late 1980s would also have been dispatched before season’s end, and coupled with his previous brief and disastrous tenure with the Scottish national team, this probably would have seen him return to some mid-ranking Scottish premier division side to try and rebuild his shattered reputation…

    On such imponderables, do great careers sometimes turn…

    • April 23, 2014 9:05 am

      Jake, It’s always a risk of psychologising that one ignores the economic forces playing behind the scenes. Yes, maybe Ferguson would have been kicked out in his early days. But I do think there is something primitive at work here – maybe almost Oedipal? – where the young new alpha male (or female in the case of Merkel) has to slay in some form the old alpha male before he/she can be truly boss.

  3. Jake permalink
    April 23, 2014 10:19 pm

    Yes, I’m inclined to agree with you, Ian. When I was writing the above post, I had that crude lyric on that very subject from one of Jim Morrison’s compositions ‘The End’ running through the back of my mind.

    Another relationship that touches on the above idea is the one between Putin and Medvedev, although there is certainly a different dynamic at work in their ‘tandemocratic’ partnership. If VP were to fall under the metaphorical bus, it’s hard to imagine DM controlling a dressing room that contains the likes of Messrs Ivanov, Lavrov, Surkov, etc…

    Speaking of which, some evidence emerges that suggests I may have lost some ground in our previous recent discussion…))

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