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Moyes Over

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The news this morning of the departure of David Moyes from Manchester United comes as no surprise. I do not claim any particular insights into the world of football management but as soon as David Moyes was announced as manager of Manchester United I said it was a mistake.

I always check the football results and tables but am not a huge football fan; and while I am certainly not a MUFC supporter I didn’t have any particular partisan axe to grind on this one, so my observations about Moyes were not tribal. Rather, it looked very much to me as though the club had made the typical leadership mistake of trying to replace one exceptional leader with someone of very similar character and temperament.

It is easy to understand why organisations do this. The thought of a leader like Sir Alex Ferguson no longer being in place is almost beyond imagination and the obvious remedy is to find a replacement who seems to as closely match his predecessor as possible. Moyes ticked the boxes in this regard. Like Ferguson, a Scot. Similar personality type. Ambition. The thing is: Moyes isn’t Ferguson, and never could be, and in a sense was always being set up to fail. At the time of his appointment I said to anyone who cared to listen that it was a mistake, and that United should be appointing someone very different from Ferguson. To do so would be a risk, but it would be to risk success rather than almost guarantee disappointment.

Churches can act similarly. If a church has been led by a very successful minister, someone loved and respected by his congregation, who sees the church grow and thrive, and stays in place a long time, finding a replacement is very difficult. Typically, the exiting pastor, or those assigned to make the new appointment, will put in place someone who is as like as possible the departing man. This rarely works. Perhaps the most obvious example of this in a high profile UK context is when Lloyd-Jones retired from Westminster Chapel to be replaced by J. Glyn Owen. This was before my time but talking with those who were there, Glyn Owen was by all accounts an excellent man, and in many ways very similar to the great Lloyd-Jones: Welsh. An intellectual. A superb preacher. But he was not Lloyd-Jones, and after five years he went.

Leadership transition is always tricky. I feel sorry for David Moyes. Ferguson was an incredible leader, but, ironically, in anointing Moyes as his successor Ferguson’s last leadership decision was a poor one. He was looking for himself, when he should have been looking for someone different.

What has happened at United makes me grateful again for the leadership wisdom of Terry Virgo, who rather than looking for a younger version of himself to lead the Newfrontiers family of churches handed on leadership to a large group of men, many of whom are noticeably different from Terry – in gift and temperament. That looked a very brave and risky strategy, but doing it the obvious way would have been a poison chalice.

When it comes to leadership transitions, the obvious choice is normally the wrong choice. Poor David Moyes.

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