OK, the dust has settled after the World Cup and perhaps we can reflect more objectively on the performance of the England football team. Few would argue that it was a far more successful tournament than most anticipated, and not just for England. Much has been written and said in broadcast media about the leadership approach adopted by the England manager, Gareth Southgate. In some sections of the popular media he has been almost sanctified; the man who resurrected English football. Hyperbole is a strong suit in the red-tops and the winning of a World-Cup penalty shoot-out after so many years of suffering does, in truth, bring a tear to the eye of this England fan of 50+years.
But let’s just examine the key parts of this England football team’s (men that is: the England women have been a team to be proud of for many years) almost miraculous transformation from a global joke in 2016 to such heroic status in a few short weeks.
How on earth did that happen?
In essence, Gareth’s leadership and behaviour combined a number of quite simple principles that any leader should seek to adopt:
He – and the team – behaved with decency
Perhaps even more impressive than his team’s performance on the field, was his – and the squad’s -behaviour when off the field. They were polite, pleasant, engaging and enthusiastic. They gave time to the fans and media with an air of positivity. The presence of so many that had played in the lower leagues or had to fight their way to the top perhaps changed the culture from the boorish arrogance of recent decades to a bunch of people who recognise their privileged position and knew what it felt like to be a fan (after all, Harry Maguire was one of the travelling fans at England’s last international tournament). Gareth’s compassion and empathy when consoling the Colombian player who missed their decisive penalty carried so much more emotional weight than the ludicrous play-acting and childish dissent of many a global star player.
Gareth Southgate is, above all, a human being who knows that winning is important, but not at all costs. There is such a thing as the greater good and doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not just because it serves your ends. This is the essence of ethical leadership.
Leaders take note. Financial and other numerical targets are not the only measure of your worth or contribution. What you do has a real impact on lives, on well-being, on society.
He remained calm and realistic
Many leaders find enthusiasm and motivation amid the excitement of the ‘battle’ and fuel it with their rhetoric and behaviour. Media loves a frenzy and a bit of controversy. As Eric Cantona once said, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”. The media do so love the taste of those sardines and do their best to get every interviewee to say something under pressure and throw a few more over the side (except I’m Cornish, so in my world, they’d be pilchards, not sardines).
There aren’t going to be too many sardines thrown in a Gareth Southgate interview. He thinks carefully about both the content and potential impact of what he plans to say and gives considered, measured polite responses. In the face of growing hysteria, because England was actually winning games, he kept everyone grounded and made sure they kept everything in perspective. A powerful leadership skill. Even after the semi-final game, he was quick to point out that England was not yet really a top-four team – but reminded the team and the rest of us that they were at the beginning of a journey of hope.
Leaders take note. It isn’t just about charisma or oratory skill designed to whip people up or a throwaway soundbite to score points, it’s also about the way people will feel and behave as a result. Creating hope is critical to engagement and enthusiasm.
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He cared about all his people – players, staff, fans and the country
It was clear from press conferences and interviews that Gareth listened carefully to questions – and the intent behind them – and responded carefully and intelligently. He made sure to share and deflect praise for his performance to include and recognise the contributions of the players and staff. He spoke eloquently about the team – always the team – and their desire to bring joy to the fans and pride to the country.
It was clear that he felt this was not just about results, but about attitude, behaviour and performance. Because of this approach, we saw England fans staying behind for hours after the team’s semi-final defeat to recognise their efforts and performance. A very marked contrast to the response to England performances over recent years, even after a win.
Leaders take note. A real leader cares for and supports their people, recognizing their efforts and contributions. They serve the needs of their stakeholders, rather than seeking reward or glory for themselves.
He understood – and unleashed – the power of a united team
In a field so full of individuals, often with their entourage of agents and PR people who encourage them to put career before team, he and his staff – and captain – united a group of players into a genuine collective. They showed time and again that they would fight for each other and the cause. Particularly impressive was the attitude of those who were effectively the ‘second eleven’ yet who were passionate in their support, encouragement and congratulation of the ones on the pitch.
Leaders take note. It isn’t just about talented individuals, it is about a healthy community ready to support each other and strive to achieve a shared goal.
The team were clear on vision, strategy & tactics
Part of achieving that team cohesion was the level of buy into the vision and clarity about how it would be achieved. Even when the team struggled, it was apparent that there was a plan and they understood what they needed to contribute and how. Even though the England captain and striker won the golden boot as highest scorer at the world cup, five other England players scored too – three of the defenders.
Leaders take note. Vision, strategy and tactics are different things and all are important. The team need to be absolutely clear on what you are trying to achieve, why it matters and how you plan to achieve it – and therefore what your expectations are of each of them.
Overall as you can deduce from the above, much of his impact and success has come from adopting a calm and human approach and from creating a real team of committed and engaged people. It isn’t really all that difficult if you are already a decent human being and one who can build and sustain effective relationships for the greater good. But then that can be quite a big ‘if’ for some leaders.