Leadership, The Southgate Way
By Maj Colin Oliver.
As we get over the disappointment of an England World Cup Semi-Final defeat, one positive everyone is agreed upon is the successful leadership of manager Gareth Southgate. It is he who is credited with the turnaround of the England team from National embarrassment to worthy competitors.
It’s worth examining why. Southgate’s leadership style is particularly pertinent for British Army leaders who want to go through their own leadership change; perhaps refining the traditional authoritarian, disciplinary, ‘shouting and screaming’ approach of the past, to one that better achieves what is required from the young men and women of today.
As a result, it is worth analysing what we in the military can learn from Southgate’s leadership. He has delivered a huge improvement in a young team which has struggled over recent years. It isn’t by chance.
Making and selling a long-term plan
It is well documented that Southgate is part of a wider, long-term FA plan. Taking young players, he set a style of play that was taught at all levels and prepared England players at different age groups to use the same systems and styles. This sets them up for success over the long-term.
In the past, the plan was not clear and so could not been executed successfully. If there was a plan, it was often based around individuals and the specific capabilities they represented.
Under Southgate, and with player buy-in, England worked to a long-term plan. It allowed them to achieve more success.
Investing in the culture
The questions around us principally come down to character; the essential ability to withstand events that go against you. Southgate in 2017, reported in The Independent
In New Zealand Rugby they say that “better people make better All Blacks”. Its part of the culture. In the same way, Southgate invested in a new England culture, one that players and fans accepted and bought into.
Southgate had a deliberate plan to tell the childhood story of his England players and make it easier for fans to associate with them. Journalists who, uniquely, played darts and mixed with the players during this World Cup, described the atmosphere as more open and collegiate. They reported on a different culture even before the tournament had started.
Even in defeat, the England players continued to display this attitude, thanking the fans both in the stadiums and in their interviews. The new team understood that the culture had to change and then, through their actions, demonstrated that it had done so. Importantly, they are also consistent in stating their intent to maintain it in the future.
Displaying care, compassion and knowledge of his men
Southgate demonstrated care and compassion rather than the critical, disciplinary approach of many of his predecessors. It was even claimed by The Times that he embodies a ‘new masculinity’
Famously this was demonstrated by his treatment of Raheem Sterling, who received a significant amount of media criticism throughout the preparation and tournament. Southgate accepted a late arrival for training, defended his tattoo because he understood its history, and continued to back him despite a perceived lack of goal scoring. This gave confidence to the player and demonstrated to the others that he understood and would support them.
Southgate was not afraid of showing empathy and compassion for those in his charge, or for the opposition. Famously consoling the Swedish players who missed penalties against England, Southgate showed genuine care and compassion for those around him. He demonstrated to others that it was a positive way to behave.
Southgate famously did not set strict curfews or ban his players from leaving camp. Instead, he allowed players to take personal holidays ahead of pre-World Cup training and allowed Fabian Delph to return home for the birth of his child during the tournament.
He trusted them all to be sensible, to understand the wider intent and risks, and make the correct decisions.
None of them let him down. They had bought into the culture of responsibility and accountability. More importantly, they had earned the trust of the Manager and the fans and wanted to repay it.
Proving the benefit of training and preparing hard
Previous England football eras were dominated by ‘star’ players and a perception that some preparation (such as practicing penalties) was unnecessary.
In keeping with modern thinking on expertise, this England team demonstrated the benefits of pain-staking analysis, planning and training. Suddenly the team became good at set piece free-kicks, corners and penalties. They learned from the (negative) experiences of their manager and from lessons from other sports. At the same time, they accepted their own inexperience and overcome it with hard work and perseverance – which they celebrated rather than concealed.
England trained hard and, for the first time in a while, fought easy – at least against less-able oppositions such as Panama. The team demonstrated that hard work in training and preparation is necessary and should be encouraged. And that, in turn, tough and focussed training will lead to success.
Showing humility in victory and defeat.
Southgate demonstrated humility in himself and taught his team to do the same.
They were gracious in defeat and gave credit to the opposition. Although finishing fourth in the tournament they were keen to highlighted that they had more to do to compete with teams above them. The England team always thanked the fans after each game. For the first time in a while, England departed with respect and support based on their performance.
Their humility bodes well for the future. They have not lost old friends. Instead they have probably gained a few new ones. And every leader needs some new friends for the challenges they are yet to face.
So, what does this mean for those of us in the military?
Is the Southgate approach new to us, and if so why? The military constantly holds itself up as world-leading in the field of leadership, but I wonder how many of those within the military would actually be most familiar with experiences of old England regimes.
Instead, we, like the rest of nation, should learn some lessons from Southgate’s leadership. We should analyse how we act, and attempt to use a hard-working, compassionate and humble approach in the future. Have a long-term plan. Sell it to our troops and trust them.
If we do, we too might succeed in our own ‘World Cups’.
If you enjoy reading about sporting leadership, then check out The Captain Class. Sam Walker examines the greatest sports teams of all time and discovers that the single most important factor that made them great was their team captain.