With the country on a high following England’s Euro 2020 semi-final win over Denmark, and excitement rising ahead of the final on Sunday, Karen Meager and John McLachlan look at England manager Gareth Southgate’s leadership style and why it is proving successful both on and off the pitch.
Gareth Southgate is winning plaudits for his leadership style. And this time, it’s taken England all the way to the final of Euro 2020.
He’s done things his way throughout the tournament. There’s no ego in that dressing room, he’ll make the decisions that need to be made for that team to be successful, and he puts the team first. The players recognise that his decisions are the right ones for the team” – Gary Neville
While his famous waistcoat from the World Cup 2018 – where England made it to the semi-final – has been dropped, there’s been no change in the effectiveness of Southgate’s leadership, both off and on the pitch. Regardless of whether England goes all the way in Euro 2020, Southgate has re-established the England team as world-class achievers.
You don’t do that in consecutive tournaments without an approach to leadership that’s clearly working. So, what is he doing off the pitch that’s making such a difference on it? And what can leaders within organisations learn from his transformational style?
Confidence in his approach
In football, despite ‘expert’ opinions everywhere, there is only one manager who has to make the decisions. Every game is scrutinised and feedback offered by pundits, fans and the media is often negative. The continued selection of Harry Kane in Euro 2020 is a perfect example: considered to have lost his form prior to the tournament, many said he had misfired in the early matches but Southgate stuck by his captain. When the second goal went in against Germany from Kane, with two more against Ukraine, the doubters were silenced.
Speaking after last night’s win against Denmark, Gary Neville said that not only is Southgate confident in his decision making, so are the team. “He’s done things his way throughout the tournament. There’s no ego in that dressing room, he’ll make the decisions that need to be made for that team to be successful, and he puts the team first. The players recognise that his decisions are the right ones for the team.”
It takes a strong leader to be open to what they hear but ultimately having confidence in their own ideas and sticking with them.
One of football’s many contradictions is a call for excitement on the pitch versus a desire for results. The two don’t always go together. One of the criticisms levelled at Southgate, often in the qualifying stages of a tournament, is that he doesn’t take risks. Again, this is part of being confident in his approach. It would have been easy to please the doubters by selecting some of the emerging talent earlier, perhaps playing Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish more often. But taking what many thought was a safer approach was perhaps the bigger risk. He put his reputation on the line – it took courage and it was right.
Strong leadership is about taking calculated risks in which all associated factors have been thought through and potential outcomes assessed prior to making the final call.
Focused on long-term goals
It’s important that leaders are driven by long-term goals. His focus was arguably formed when he wore an England shirt himself. He even spoke of his regret at his famous Euro 96 penalty miss after the 2-0 defeat of Germany last week. The players know he’s been there too.
Sometimes as a leader it’s easier to make short term, tactical moves that others can attribute to you. However countless studies show that leaders who can drop their ego and focus on the long term outcome achieve more. This is borne out by England’s steady progress over the past two tournaments. Now, rather than ‘building for the future’, this future has arrived.
Sometimes as a leader it’s easier to make short term, tactical moves that others can attribute to you. However countless studies show that leaders who can drop their ego and focus on the long term outcome achieve more”
Confidence to achieve sustainable performance
The same can be said of Southgate’s employer, the FA. The ability to look to the future is central to being a good leader. By selecting the former coach of the Under 21s, the FA chose someone in Southgate already proven in spotting and developing future talent. What’s more, they very publicly gave a vote of confidence in him before Euro 2020 saying that they were completely confident in his ability to lead England into the future, despite whatever may happen. It was a vote of confidence that encouraged, not undermined.
To build towards sustainable performance requires long-term thinking that doesn’t get influenced by the media or the short-termism of those only focused on the next game.
Authenticity and opportunity
Writing ahead of the tournament, Southgate published an open letter to fans. There will not been a single player that has not read every word and grasped both the importance of their role and what it meant to their manager. Acknowledging the difficult year we’ve had, he explained that while football may not seem so important, the message he was about to share was much bigger than football.
“There’s something I tell our players before every England game, and the reason that I repeat it is because I really believe it with all my heart. I tell them that when you go out there, in this shirt, you have the opportunity to produce moments that people will remember forever. You are a part of an experience that lasts in the collective consciousness of our country…. Every game, no matter the opposition, has the potential to create a lifelong memory for an England fan somewhere.”
Those are open and powerful words to share, even more so to hear them before each game. Authenticity is a key factor that separates strong leaders from weak ones. Strong leaders are not afraid to be explicit.
A coaching approach
While other highly successful managers have been known to use a more direct disciplinarian approach in their communication style, such as Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous “hairdryer” treatment, Southgate’s coaching style is far more about empathy. Discussing his own approach to coaching in 2018, Southgate focuses on the person before the footballer, involves regular communication, listening more than speaking and, in his own words, “If a player feels that you respect them and you want to help them, then they are more likely to listen to you and follow you.”
Southgate focuses on the person before the footballer, involves regular communication, listening more than speaking”
Southgate’s approach is to actively seek out the opinions of others. As reported by the BBC during the tournament, Southgate’s view is “I like listening to people who know things that I don’t, that’s how you learn.” During his time as England manager he has visited successful Olympic sports coaches, business leaders and military leaders in order to continue learning about high performance.
Leaders who take a coaching approach sacrifice short term wins for the longer term bigger picture, building a strong competent team around them rather than a dependant one. As a result, this makes the team much more effective overall. Coaching is about personal ownership of decisions, as Southgate said: “I think if the players have some ownership of what’s going on then that’s going to help them make better decisions on the field.”
Real, honest relationships
Southgate recognises that his players have opinions and he wants them to express these. It’s fair to say there will be football managers who think very differently. Perhaps that’s why some ‘lose the dressing room’ as players buy out of their philosophy.
This clearly isn’t happening with Southgate. As he explained when describing his coaching style, “I think it is important to listen and get a feel of what motivates the individual… I tend to prefer an informal approach because it allows people to open up more and allows them to feel more comfortable expressing an opinion.”
Crucially, Southgate recognises that it’s not him out on the pitch making the ultimate decisions, it’s his players. “I like the players to speak up in meetings – I like them to have an opinion on the game, because in the 85th minute they have got to make a decision that might win or lose the game and we can’t make all those decisions from the sideline.”
This two way communication not only builds a better relationship between manager and players – it creates a relationship that is honest, where everyone knows what is required, and where everyone knows how to communicate to get the right results. This level of engagement from leadership focuses energy and talent and also helps to mitigate against burnout.
The progress England have made as a team under Gareth Southgate is borne out of a different, more empathetic coaching approach to leadership. Given this success, especially with the pressures placed on the shoulders of an England manager, these are attributes all leaders could learn from.
And the results are not only being seen on the pitch – he has transformed the way our international players behave off the field. Considering the expectations from fans and the whole country, the England players are all grounded, confident and polite with the media, taking a lead from their manager.
It’s a style of leadership that could see him become England’s most successful manager since, well, you know the year! Fingers crossed for Sunday.