When Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United, one of world’s great soccer clubs, after 26 years of unprecedented success, the question of who could replace him was settled by AlexFerguson himself. United could attract the very best managers but in the end, Ferguson, like an all-powerful monarch from the middle ages, named his own successor for the crown and David Moyes was selected and became known as The Chosen One.
Whilst Moyes had a lot of respect for managing Everton, a club that always did well considering its limited budget to buy players, he had never managed a club at the very top level, had no experience in European competitions, never won anything, and never beaten any of the very top teams in the premiership. In short his CV didn’t fit with the scale of the job in hand. Manchester United are a global business with revenues of around £420 million a year, owned by American financiers and floated on the stock exchange. Man Utd’s soccer competitors, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona would never had selected him as manager, so why did Fergusson choose him and why did Man Utd business leaders allow it to happen?
In the simplest terms we can say it was Ferguson’s Ego that led to the choice. I say this not using the Ego in a way that is derogatory – we all have egos and a snr leaders task in a high profile job is to harness their ego in service of their role – however sometimes this ego function serves them well and sometimes it gets distorted. Ferguson’s strength of character and Ego drive led him to overcome numerous set backs and deliver unrelenting success (he now shares his leadership skills at Harvard Business school with snr business leaders). Ferguson found retiring very difficult, he tried it once before and returned to the job. This time it seems that he couldn’t completely let go, so he unconsciously chose to leave a part of himself in the role of manager. He achieved this in two ways. Firstly, by personally choosing his successor – any future success would be identified with both the new manager and with Ferguson for choosing him. Secondly, he chose someone in his own image – Moyes was born in Glasgow a few miles from Ferguson’s home, they were from a similar background, shared a similar journey as a player then manager. Most of all, you can see the same gritty, Glaswegian no-nonsense way of talking, and their shared total dedication and work ethic. Ferguson saw in Moyes a younger self. If he could not continue to manage into his 80’s, then he would chose a person (an avatar) that would mimic him. Why did the business leaders allow Ferguson to make this choice… well his Ego had served the club well before, why not in this choice?
There was a collusion around the idea that Ferguson had become infallible – his Ego had distorted his and the business directors’ judgement.
So what does this tell us about Ego and senior leadership?
Firstly, forget the hype about ego-free leaders and the New Age spirituality and Buddhist rhetoric entering the management field these days, claiming servant-leaders and post-heroic leaders need to lose their ego. They don’t! Snr leaders need to be aware of how they use their Ego drive in service of the task in hand, i.e. to serve their company, and also to be aware of how their Ego can distort their judgment too.
Secondly, A CEO or snr leader has to learn how to manage the projections from others that ‘feed the beast’ and support their Ego needs. When you achieve a lot of success, and when others are vying for your attention and approval, problems arise. It is not just the lack of a critical friends challenging decisions that happens. The emotional life of the leader is distorted, they begin to believe and feel they are infallible and can do anything (remember Bill Clinton – he felt so infallible that he had ‘sex’ in the White House, putting at risk his Presidency and all he had worked for his whole life).
Thirdly, many leaders with strong Ego’s are walking a precarious tightrope. It is their Ego drives that when harnessed to ‘doing good’ have led them and their companies to success. It is the same drive that can be their undoing as this case study shows.
To be courageous, to speak the unspeakable to leaders, saying what others fear to say. To help leaders anchor their ego function to the task – to develop in the leader a self-awareness of how their Ego can lead to mission-drift by distorting reality, shaping the world to the ego needs, rather than shaping the company to the demands of the world.