Sep 28 2021| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
In my latest Business Brief article, I observed Gareth Southgate’s actions to see what makes him a great leader and how we can, in turn, use that to be great leaders ourselves.
Last month, the UEFA Euros 2020 culminated in a championship win for Italy, with England as the runners up. The nation has not only observed sporting prowess in the England team, but also the leadership qualities of Gareth Southgate, the England manager.
I don’t know Gareth Southgate personally; however, we can scrutinise our observations of his actions through the lens of what makes a great leader and draw inspiration for our own leadership.
Moral courage is the essence of the excellent leader, typically carrying these hallmarks:
Gareth Southgate’s leadership style is ego-light. When the team beat Denmark in the quarter-finals, Southgate quickly and calmly commiserated with the Denmark coach. It looked like a genuine, unscripted act of humility. Southgate typifies this calm, inclusive approach, thanking everyone in the team. He hasn’t asserted himself as the hero or saviour. He’s at pains to take responsibility for failings, including for England’s loss on penalties in the final: ‘It’s down to me… I choose the guys to take the kicks,’ he said. He doesn’t cast blame for mistakes on others or on external factors like the weather conditions.
It’s easy to observe Southgate’s ‘serve-to-lead’ attitude. He is visibly supportive of his players and colleagues, putting an arm around them in a welcome expression of support when needed. We sense the team trusts him, and not only for his technical skills. He quickly thanks fans, shows grace and sportsmanship to opponents and honours others. These are not afterthoughts following criticism, they’re in-the-moment habits of practice. These are the traits of a humble leader.
How humble are we in our leadership and how are we keeping our own egos in check? Here are some signals that might help us:
Morally courageous leaders make high-conviction decisions. They are clear about their personal values and do ‘the right thing’ even if there are costs to that decision. How the England team played throughout the tournament will reflect the values of the manager. There was a sense of sportsmanship throughout. Congratulating opponents for good moves and wins, helping to pull opponents up after a tackle, often with smiles and supportive gestures; after all, opponents will become teammates as the football season resumes.
Southgate has made his values and beliefs about racism clearly known, writing an open letter ahead of the Euros fully backing the team’s decision to ‘take the knee’ before each game. This invited criticism from some fans at the time, some booing as the players publicly demonstrated their values. Regrettably, racist attitudes surfaced immediately after the tournament too. He and the team remained resolute, mutually supportive and invigorated to continue to challenge bigotry. ‘It's their [the players’] duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,’ he said.
There is a significant difference between courage and bravado. Courageous leaders take risk, often personal risk, but are not excessively reckless. Leaders who exhibit bravado are ego-fuelled, deny realities and ignore warning signals. Southgate has expressed a blend of confidence and reality, acknowledging the challenge ahead whilst injecting calm and hope at the same time.
Are we courageous in our decision-making? Here are some ideas to consider:
Morally courageous decision-making requires critical thinking from a multitude of perspectives. In particular, great leaders challenge received wisdom and seek new approaches, rather than assuming that what’s worked before will work again. This is all with the aim of achieving improvement and excellence, typically seeking consistent improvement rather than a one-off, unsustainable hit.
Southgate has consistently pursued a strategy of building a new approach and new identity for the England team. Developing young people, mixing with more experienced players in a mutual setting, i.e. learning from each other regardless of position, has changed the team’s approach. This will not have come about overnight. It’s the result of consistent learning both from successes and from mistakes, iterating and improving steadily.
What can we learn and absorb into our own leadership practice?
Morally courageous leaders decide with high conviction and implement with compassion. We can observe these hallmarks in Gareth Southgate. How would others assess our leadership?