Sep 28 2021| Leadership

Leadership Lessons from Gareth Southgate

September Business Brief

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:  

 

  1. Humility 

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:   

  • A willingness to accept our responsibility for mistakes, even when they’re made by others. One client I work alongside wants their mid-managers to speak up more frequently when there are safety risks in their business. Our response is to work with the leadership team and not the managers; it’s the leaders who are responsible for creating the conditions that enable people to speak up.  
  • Generosity - humble leaders are generous with their praise, their time and their resources. They expect to give far more than they receive. Like Southgate, they give themselves to their people and they make time.  
  • Asking for help - showing appropriate vulnerability is a sign of humility. No one is impervious to error, no one possesses all the answers.  
  • Open to criticism - high-ego leaders defend criticism energetically and often destructively. They look to undermine the source of criticism rather than address the issues raised. Humble leaders listen and seek to learn, even if the source of criticism is imperfect.  

 

  1. Courage, not bravado

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: 

  • When faced with a matter of conscience, do we take the easy option or the harder one, regardless of the potential consequences? 
  • There’s an important difference between flip-flopping in our choices based on the most recent opinion that we’ve heard and making firm decisions whilst maintaining an openness to being wrong. 
  • Do we take our own advice? Many leaders whom I meet give excellent advice to others but don’t take it themselves. Courageous decisions apply inwardly just as much as outwardly.  
  • Do we apply our principles even for small things or excuse ‘minor’ infractions? Courageous leaders will seek to apply their principles in all situations, viewing the smaller matters as opportunities to learn and practise ahead of a more serious future dilemma. 

 

  1. Critical thinking

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?  

  • Great leaders have a horizon perspective. They are not immersed solely in the short-term immediate wins. Such leaders are possessed by a compelling vision for the future. What is it that you are working towards? Do short-term or long-term matters dominate your thinking?  
  • We are most comfortable when we are around like-minded people, but to lead well, we need to actively invite alternative perspectives. When building your team, are you seeking people who will challenge you or agree with you? Are there sources that you ignore because they’re irritating?  
  • Consistency, steadily working towards your objectives with patience and tenacity is by far the most effective way of achieving success. We can be seduced by the quick wins, but the truth is that a ‘go big or go home’ attitude often results in us going home. What are the areas in your business that need steady, consistent improvement and how will you know that this is happening?  
  • Our responses to mistakes and losses is very telling. Critical thinkers don’t enjoy mistakes – no one does - but they do use them as a basis to gain insight and learn how to improve and win next time. How do you tend to handle mistakes made by your team?  

 

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? 

 

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has significant expertise in sophisticated psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company, Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Since launching Leaders in 2017, Phil has worked with many senior executives and boards primarily in the Channel Islands and City of London. He regularly writes for a variety of business publications and is often invited to speak at events for institutions such as the IoD and the British Army. Phil works closely with clients on focussed projects and long-term retainers to raise leadership standards. He is a popular and inspiring educator and coach who, with the insights gained from psychometrics, is able to accurately detect the strengths and weaknesses in leadership teams and boards. Phil has served on the boards of various charities, ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and is accredited in various motivation and behavioural techniques.

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