Leadership lessons from Gareth Southgate

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England may have been knocked out of the semi-finals of the World Cup, but the majority of fans will see the transformation in how the team is perceived as a huge win for a nation that has suffered 52 years of hurt.

Southgate seems to have made the ‘impossible’ job ‘possible’ since he took over as England manager. He has taken some simple leadership principles and done what so many managers before him have failed to do: implement them.

He has looked at the well documented issues the England football team has faced over the years and set out to eradicate them step by step, to give his team the best opportunity to be successful. That is after all, what leadership is about isn’t it?

So on what principles has the Southgate ‘revolution’ been based on?

 

1. Have a Vision

When he took over the mid-qualifying campaign he very clearly stated that we were going to play the 4-4-2 formation, that the players were used to, and once we had qualified he would evolve this into his preferred 5-3-2 for the tournament. He picked the right players to suit what was best for the team, not the right formation to suit the best players as had been the case for many years. You could argue that two of the outstanding successes of the tournament, Pickford and Maguire, were only playing because they fitted the chosen style of play better. Long gone is the Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes diamond debacle!

Having clarity of thought and the conviction of your beliefs is a powerful thing.

 

2. Manage expectations

Rallied by the media we have regularly been whipped up into a storm of ‘tubthumping’ expectations that have weighed heavily on the team. Southgate did well to lower these, asking us to focus on progression and the development of young players. Most brilliantly he created trust with the media by being more candid, personally embracing them as part of the team and helping them to get what they wanted in the guise of more access to the players. Deeply personal stories from Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose, coupled with all the players being available on media days were decisive in turning the tide.

The press manage the nation’s perceptions, so with the press on side, the nation felt positive, supportive and importantly, forgiving.

 

3. Create a sense of togetherness

Club-based cliques between players defined the ‘Golden Generation’ and Southgate set out to create an atmosphere where players were playing for the person next to them (something that was often quoted by the players in interviews).

He spent time studying what the best teams in the world do and copied it. He often quotes the All Blacks and has fully bought into their ethos where nobody is bigger than the team.

Whether it was trust-building sessions, spreading leadership responsibilities amongst all of the players (both on and off the pitch), or his obvious loyalty to players who bought into his ideas, it all went to serve the creation of a team. And with teams, comes spirit.

 

4. Mindset is everything

Sport, work and life are all about mindset. What goes on inside your head will manifest itself in your reality.

Resilience is about seeing the opportunity that sits behind the adversity. Whenever you hit a bump in the road or concede the metaphorical last minute equalizer you should stop and ask yourself two simple questions;

How could this be an opportunity for me? What small step can I take to make this opportunity more likely to happen?

The quotes coming out of the players exude psychological awareness. In the post-match interviews Pickford talked repeatedly about ‘staying in the present moment’ and Southgate waxed lyrical about ‘owning the process’ of penalties. This team was coached, and not in the traditional football sense of the word.

 

5. Listen to your customers

For years England fans have been crying out for a dynamic, attacking team that plays in a fearless way. We have, for a long time, been willing to let go of the need to win in exchange for a brand of football that we could all ‘get behind’.

Introducing young players has been a way to bypass the fear-ridden legacy of the past and he supplemented this by creating a freedom for them to express themselves. The move to the single pivot in midfield, the introduction of Lingard and Alli and the willingness to play two strikers is a football fan’s dream. Put simply, he provided a product that his customers wanted to buy!

 

6. Be dignified and respectful

After the fiasco of the Sam Allardyce era and the follow-up scandal involving the manager of the women’s England team, Mark Sampson, it was time for something more presidential and fitting at the top of the FA.

The tone was set right from that start with the way he dealt with the ‘Rooney situation’, allowing him to bow out gracefully while laying down a marker of who is in charge.

He is calm, in control and knows how to say the right thing – being open, answering questions but never slipping up and giving the press the one-liner they may have looked for in the past. How he dealt with the disgusting treatment of Raheem Sterling by The Sun newspaper summed him up beautifully – loyal, considered and decisive.

He understands the behaviour that is required of someone who holds his office and is focused on achieving results the right way and not at any cost. 

 

Waistcoat leadership is based on the principles of empathy and our millennial generation of players responded to this.

Southgate has created an identity and with it a positive future for the England team, controlling fear and not allowing it to have its wicked way with us again.

St. Georges Park has been a success, English youth teams are winning major tournaments and the connection with the fans has been restored. All of this will continue to flood through to the first team. Imagine this side four years on; Loftus-Cheek, Rashford and Alli in their pomp, injected with the likes of Brewster, Foden and Sancho. Talent and succession planning will win out. The great Dutch, French, German and Belgian sides have all been built on it. Our time is next.

The England team is suddenly important again and football fans across the country no longer need to fear the international break. This was the most I’ve enjoyed watching England for 20 years. Thank you for an amazing few weeks.

One more game would be wonderful next time.