Insight article

What does the Manchester Utd saga tell us about leadership?

It was just over a week ago that David Moyes was unceremoniously dismissed from his post as the manager of Manchester United FC. He’d endured a rough ride at the helm of a club that had never finished a season in worse than third place since the early 90s. Fans, players, the media were, perhaps excessively, obsessed with the club’s travails simply because it was doing something no one could remember them ever doing: losing.

It’s hard to say what exactly went wrong, but the weekend following Moyes’s departure saw United beat Norwich City by a resounding score of 4 to nil. The performance could have been seen as a protest on the part of the players to the notion that the club had irrevocably lost its power.

Or the victory could be seen as a players’ tribute to a manager whose sacking irked many who thought the dismissal tarnished United’s reputation as much as the match results did (the announcement was made via Twitter).

As the Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins put it yesterday on the Today programme, “Man United stands for things. It’s always had relatively decent values in fairly difficult world. People feel sorry for Moyes and the way he was mistreated.”

Perhaps Moyes simply wasn’t up to the job, which seems all the more evident given the success attributed to his predecessor, the almost mythical figure of Sir Alex Ferguson. But it begs the question of whether Moyes’s failure to match Ferguson’s success was in the cards from the very beginning. Success can cast a long shadow, particularly if that success is down to the leadership of just one person.

There are certainly cases of business that have survived, and thrived, upon the departure of remarkable leaders. Apple, whose share price has risen more than 50 percent since Jobs's death, is one example. Lou Gerstner, who shifted IBM from a cumbersome mainframe computer manufacturer to an enduringly successful IT services company, is another.

But, punctuated by Moyes's woes, United's success under Ferguson highlights a kind of paradox of success. As this week's Economist points out, there are similar questions surrounding Berkshire Hathaway's succession plans. Could anyone really succeed Warren Buffett's astounding and unrivaled success after he retires on May 3? Buffett and Ferguson each presided over long, turmoil-transcending periods of excellence in their respective fields. If indeed Berkshire suffers a fate similar to United's, the downfall of the two great leaders would both highlight their own exceptional leadership as well as reveal a fatal, final flaw – their failure to give life to an institution larger and stronger than themselves.

Perhaps we should withhold the final evaluation of apparently great leaders until after they have moved on. Surely the ability to build enduring and dynamic institutions – replete with compelling and living stories of their history, their values and where they are going – should be an important criterion for successful leadership.

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Nailia Tasseel