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Gareth Southgate - a leader winning through a coaching approach

Gareth Southgate - a leader winning through a coaching approach

Once again, 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.

While his famous waistcoat from the World Cup 2018 has been dropped, there’s been no change in the effectiveness of Southgate’s leadership, both off and on the pitch.

Once again the results are there to see. From World Cup semi-finalists in 2018 and regardless of whether we go 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 organisational leaders learn from his transformational style?

 

Confidence in his own approach

In football, despite ‘expert’ opinions everywhere, there is only one manager who has to make the decisions. Every game is scrutinised, post match and feedback offered by pundits, fans and the media and 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.

 

Taking risks

One of football’s many contradictions is a call for excitement on the pitch, vs 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, by taking what many thought was a safer approach it 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 that keep them moving. Southgate as manager can demonstrate progress by reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and now the final of Euro 2020. However, 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. They also know that, despite the clear objective of winning this tournament, his goal has been focused for a very long time.

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, finally, rather than ‘building for the future’, this future has arrived and Southgate deserves all the acclaim he is receiving.

 

The 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, despite whatever may happen, they were completely confident in his ability to lead England into the future. 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.  Southgate’s own confidence can only have been boosted by the FA’s support.

 

Authenticity and opportunity

Writing ahead of the Euro 2020 tournament, Southgate published an open letter to fans, if not the whole country.  There won’t have been a single player that won’t have 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, there’s nothing vague or ambiguous about what Southgate wants the players to achieve, or how he wants the country to feel about them and the memories he wants them to create. You know where you stand with an authentic leader, especially when the relationship is as shared, open and transparent as Southgate’s.

 

Bringing a coaching approach to coaching

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.” Hardly the words of a shouty old-school manager.

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. This could be described as bringing a coaching approach to coaching 

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 demonstrated by Southgate’s quote on the outcomes he’s aiming to achieve “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 those opinions. 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, the relationship is honest and everyone knows what is required - and how each other are going to communicate to get the right results. This level of engagement from leadership focuses energy and talent and also helps to mitigate against burnout.

 

In conclusion

The progress England have made as a team under Gareth Southgate is born 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 well 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.


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