Manchester United, David Moyes and the Psychology of Leadership

2437256So the dirty deed has been done, David Moyes has been sacked from the Manchester United managers role. What ever we collectively feel about the sacking from complete ambivalence to sympathy or perhaps just plain sorry for the guy, what are lessons to learn from his ten month tenure. How can psychology make sense of the the sorry episode?

Now, I have to declare my hand early on here, I am a Manchester United supporter and have been since the sixties, when the mercurial and my footly hero George Best graced Old Trafford. Indeed there are parallels with when Sir Matt Busby retired with disastrous consequences for the club and the managers role. All that aside, the intention here is to look at the psychology of leadership and perhaps where the present situation went so wrong.

Football is not just a sport it is also a huge international business, none more so than Manchester United. Globally recognised as being one of the top if not the top grossing football clubs in the world. So with all of their financial clout & business experience, how did the recruitment process for the new manager become the decision of one man – Sir Alex Ferguson on his retirement? The recruitment process for any high profile role is a forensic process. Amongst a multitude of dimensions such as the vision for the business, what has been the successes or indeed failures etc. The failures are equally important as they present challenges to be overcome. How the individual met the difficulties and was psychologically resilient (or mentally tough) enough to use the experiences to bounce back. So why did Ferguson pick out Moyes as his successor? Clearly the two men are very similar (Halo Effect?) and perhaps promoting a “lessor” light to manager suggests narcissistic and egocentric behaviour to protect Ferguson’s legacy? However, the one ingredient Moyes seemingly did not have (besides not winning a major trophy) was power.

According to Winter (1991) “Successful leaders and managers must use power – to influence others, to monitor results, and to sanction performance; but this power must be exercised in a “responsible” ways that involve (ethical) standards, accountability of consequentness and a concern for subordinates and peers”  Ferguson’s power was absolute, he was a winner and maintained a siege mentality at Old Trafford. The consequences of failure were clear to all the staff & players, they were accountable for their actions both on and off the field. Ferguson from the outside seemed to be a good old fashioned autocrat and have a dictatorial leadership style. Everyone knew where they were, he was consistent, commanded respect and provided role clarity for staff and players. Just as any good manager or leaders should, albeit perhaps the business of leadership style is open to question? It clearly worked for Manchester United.

Moyes on the other had had formal power as manager but no method of applying the power effectively to his team or at the club. No consistency, 52 games and 52 different starting teams. Also seemingly little respect from the playing staff – basic social comparison theory here (Festinger, 1954), how can the players and staff follow David Moyes, what has he won, why is he trying to be “one of the lads” when he clearly wasn’t? Moyes also chose the language of failure to describe the teams performances as “we couldn’t” “we didn’t” “we don’t”. The team needed some of the distance of Ferguson to use “they” instead of being one of the lads that Moyes tried to cultivate. Interesting we may also apply in-group out-group & social identity theory from Tajfel et al (1979) to explain the players attitude, following Moyes removal of Ferguson’s coaching staff and the instigation of a completely new organisational culture, coaching and playing style? 

Moyes may have been wise to implement change to the club over time. By choosing to work alongside Ferguson’s long-standing coaching staff for his first year at least, Moyes could have been fully focused on distancing himself, establishing a rapport and mutual respect with the players, staff and fans, safe in the knowledge that for his staff the consistency, role clarity and respect on the training ground they are so used to still existed. He could have taken this time to embed himself into the culture at Manchester United and to develop a true understanding of the club as a team as a multi-faceted business leader. Then, and only then could he make an informed and confident decision about the staff who should stay, who should go and who should be brought in.

So how can psychology make sense of the ten months of the reign of David Moyes, the recruitment process, the dimensions of power in leadership and how social psychology can explain some of the behind the scenes smoke and mirrors at Manchester United? Perhaps Moyes was not the wrong person for the job, though he was perhaps set up to fail by the previous manager for the reason given here. Utilising the dimensions of power and leadership, Moyes and his staff chose the path of befriending the playing squad, rather than adapting to the prevailing culture that Ferguson took so long to develop with huge success. Moyes could have taken time to develop the power of the role, but chose the new broom approach with the consequences we all have become aware of recently.

Leadership isn’t easy and can be a lonely business – but without engaged followers, leaders have nothing to lead. In this case, Moyes marched to the wrong beat or was out of step with the prevailing organisational culture. Perhaps Moyes is destined for “middle management” managing the process he did do well at Everton; without the huge expectation and business nous necessary of a blue chip organisation such as Manchester United. We will see what his strategic leadership qualities are in the coming months & years. The way leaders utilise an adaptive and agile sense of the prevailing cultures and what it takes to succeed in any organisation may have helped David Moyes make a better fist of the Manchester United job. My best wishes to Mr Moyes and good luck.


Winter, D.G. (1991) The Motivational Model of Leadership: Predicting Long-term Sucsess from TAT Measures of Power Motivation and Responsibility

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations?, 33, 47.