Gareth Southgate – unlikely hero, inclusive leader
With news this morning that Southgate tube station in London has been temporarily renamed ‘Gareth Southgate’, the England manager has emerged as an unexpected model of authentic, inclusive leadership during his team’s exploits at the World Cup this summer.
So much so that it’s worth a quick reminder of the change in mood his inclusive management style has brought to the England team and its supporters.
November 2016. Wails of derision greet the FA’s decision to move Gareth Southgate’s term as England manager from interim to permanent. That summer, England had been unceremoniously dumped out of the European Championships by a country with roughly the same population as Coventry. The ignominy did not end with Iceland. Sam Allardyce’s tenure as the new England manager ended in a corruption scandal after only 67 days (and one match) in charge.
Gareth Southgate was not a ‘big name’. This was not the marquee signature needed to steady the nation’s sporting ship. How could someone best known for the penalty miss that cost his team a final place, on home soil, at Euro 96 be the answer to a national team synonymous with under-achievement? How could he cope with the overinflated egos and self-over-club-over-country priorities of the modern game? Was he just too plain nice?
July 2018. A country back in love with the beautiful game. A penalty shoot-out win. A run to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in almost 30 years. A run on waistcoats in the shops. A team full of on-field spirit and free from off-field distraction. A welcome wave of positivity and good humour. A #GarethSouthgateWould hashtag. A fourth-place finish and a Golden Boot for Southgate’s captain.
So what changed? And what leadership lessons can we learn from this most unexpected of sources?
Credit: Getty Images
Inclusive leadership – the Gareth Southgate model
1. Creating an inclusive culture
Compassion and integrity are hardly words we have come to associate with England managers in recent years. Or anyone involved in football for that matter.
In early June, England defender Danny Rose spoke openly to the media about his recent battles with depression. No England player had spoken so openly about mental health and wellbeing before. This was not a behind-closed-doors interview, either. It took place at the National Football Centre, St George’s Park.
It is hard to imagine such candidness coming out of previous England camps. And Rose points to the strong, compassionate relationships formed with Southgate and team physio Steve Kemp as an essential part of his recovery.
In Russia, Southgate gave permission to Fabian Delph to return home for the birth of his third child, reassuring him that “family comes first” despite Delph’s involvement in the two previous England games. (Delph would return to the team for the quarter-final victory against Sweden.)
Put another way, the England players were able – and enabled – to bring their whole selves to work.
2. Embracing diversity
Another by-product of Southgate’s inclusive leadership approach is the repairing of a long-lost connection between team and fans. As with Danny Rose’s story, the public has been given a sight of the players as real people, not just paid performers.
Central to this has been celebrating the diversity at the squad’s core, in terms of both race and background.
This was the most ethnically diverse England World Cup squad ever. As highlighted by the Migration Museum’s ‘England. Without Immigration’ campaign, six of the team who started England’s opening group match with Tunisia have migrant parents. 11 of the 23-man squad are black or mixed-race, five more than in Brazil four years ago.
Seven England players are of Caribbean descent. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica before moving to England at the age of five, while Ashley Young, Kyle Walker, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Danny Rose also have Jamaican heritage. Add Fabian Delph (Guyana) and penalty hero Marcus Rashford (St Kitts), and you have a far more fitting tribute to the 70th anniversary of the Windrush than the political horror-show that preceded it earlier this year.
For youngsters from diverse communities watching the World Cup, names like Raheem and Dele are now visible on the national team-sheet next to John and Jordan.
This is not just about skin colour, though. In business, one of the proven benefits of diversity is how it breeds innovation. At the last World Cup and the last two Euros combined, England did not score a single goal from a corner. This World Cup they scored eight. Fresh creative ideas, rehearsed on the training ground, have reinvigorated the team’s set-pieces with great success.
Would the same have been true under a leader less willing to listen to new ideas from his team?
3. Building trust
Gareth Southgate raised many an eyebrow with some of his leadership decision-making in the run-up to Russia. Southgate chose to put his faith in youth over experience. There were no seats on the plane for once-firm incumbents like Wayne Rooney (England’s captain) and Joe Hart (England’s number 1).
But according to Google’s Project Aristotle, a 2017 research study into team effectiveness, the performance of a team is not so much about the individuals within it, but about how they interact with one another.
And the foundation of a high-performing team culture, according to Google? Psychological safety. This refers to the level of confidence or fearlessness a team member feels about taking a risk that may have a negative impact on their teammates. Like taking a penalty in a shoot-out. Elsewhere in the workplace, this might be making a mistake, asking a question or forwarding a new idea without fear of interpersonal reprisal or embarrassment.
Gareth Southgate also put an enormous amount of trust in his own players, despite them being relative novices at international level.
In an age of unprecedented player power and access, did the manager take away his players’ mobile phones or bar them from their Instagram accounts? No. Unlike the command-and-control leadership style of the Fabio Cappello regime, Southgate’s approach to team-building drew instead on nudge theory.
In one interview with the BBC, Southgate was quick to mention the value of a night spent camping under the stars in Devon with the Royal Marines. The loss of connectivity was meant to foster togetherness within the group, yes, but as an unexpected result of the experience, the players themselves decided not to use their phones during team meal times.
Above all, this was an intentional culture, grown from within rather than enforced from above.
4. Staying authentic
As the England team entered the World Cup knock-out stages (and long before the rise of Waistcoat Wednesdays), BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey shared a story on Twitter about interviewing Gareth Southgate as a young sports reporter for the BBC way back in 2007.
Retweeted nearly 5,000 times up to now, the story is a testament to Southgate’s authentic leadership approach as well as his passion for sport as a tool for social cohesion and change.
In his World Cup interviews, too, Southgate has not shied away from the wider context of the team’s success. He frequently voiced his pride in his team as a force for good, capable of bringing people together at a time of tectonic division back home.
Speaking after beating Panama, Southgate told the media: “In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger.”
The scale of the challenge has changed massively, but it would seem that Southgate’s leadership style remains as authentic as it was over a decade ago.
Rather than high-profile controversies, the post-tournament focus remains on football and looking ahead to the future. And when it comes to the England national team, that’s no small feat.