Leading, Not Managing July 26, 2021

What can business leaders learn from England manager Gareth Southgate?

“Looking at that man there it’s everything a leader should be: respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic.” This praise for England men’s football manager, Gareth Southgate, came from his former teammate Gary Neville after England beat Denmark to reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals - a stage of the competition that, realistically, many thought it was unlikely that England would reach.

When he was first appointed as England manager in 2016, after a short stint as interim boss, many were surprised at the decision - with some stating that the choice was a poor one. In a GQ article at the time, they proclaimed that “there is no definitive reason why Southgate cannot become a quality manager, but in the ten years since he retired from playing, there is very little to suggest he will”.


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Now, though - despite the fact that football didn’t “come home” as was hoped - Southgate is being hailed as an incredible leader, a man who’s commandeered a team to its first major final in 55 years.

There’s plenty that business leaders can learn from Southgate’s vision, values and approach. To find out more, we spoke to Vistage Chair Graeme Thompson, whose background of over 25 years in elite-level sport makes him perfectly placed to explain exactly what makes Southgate such a game-changer for English football.

Inspiration from all over

In 2016 it was not only Southgate’s appointment that garnered negative press, but also the formation of the FA Technical Advisory Board: a diverse mix of unpaid volunteers from different sectors who were brought together to discuss how the team’s performance could be improved. These volunteers included Vistage Chair David Sheepshanks, cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford, Colonel Lucy Giles of the Sandhurst Military Academy, tech entrepreneur Manoj Badale and others. While some were aghast that Southgate was taking guidance from individuals with no real knowledge of football, it proved to be a wise decision.

“In effect, what he did was to tap into other people’s knowledge, other leaders from other sectors”, says Graeme. And it didn’t stop there. In 2019, Southgate graduated from UK Sport’s World Class Coaching: Elite programme: a three-year programme designed “to enhance and develop current world class coaches working within the British system, encouraging coaches to network within other sports from world class to leading level”. Southgate was the first football coach to graduate from the course.

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“He’s gone outside of his industry - and probably his usual comfort zone”, says Graeme. “By doing so, he’s found new things and brought them to the team. He seems to be somebody who looks to push himself so he can be the best version of himself for his players”.

A Jack of all trades

After his playing career ended in 2006, Southgate’s career in English football spanned a number of roles. From commentating for ITV at the 2006 World Cup and managing both Middlesbrough and the England Under-21s team to being appointed as Head of Elite Development at the FA in 2011, Southgate has been involved in various aspects of the “beautiful game”.

“He’s helped to create structures to develop people”, says Graeme. “He’s helped to work on ways for the players to overcome the actual challenges that they’re likely to meet. He’s been part of a structure to improve the players - but he’s also improved himself massively as well."

Tackling tough issues

A brand’s stance on or reaction to societal issues can have an enormous impact on their brand image. After England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 finals, estate agency Savills came under fire when a manager at the firm posted a racist tweet from the brand’s Twitter account, throwing the brand into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Now more than ever, says Graeme, “all leaders are having to make comments, take positions and be leaders on societal issues” - and Southgate is no different. It is his responsibility to shape what the England team’s brand is all about, and before, during and after the Euro 2020 tournament, he has done so admirably.

In his “Dear England” open letter in early June, Southgate spoke of his own values and those that he hoped the nation also holds: a rousing cry to celebrate diversity and become a more inclusive nation. “His is a very public-facing position”, says Graeme. “It’s no longer enough for a leader’s views to be known just to a few key customers or clients, they should be made as public as possible”.

Mastering a range of working conditions

Thanks to COVID-19, business leaders are having to establish how best to manage hybrid workforces - something that Southgate has had to contend with from the off. As England manager, he alternates between spells of working with players for a short, intense period, and periods where training and games for their clubs mean that there is less contact.

“You’ve got to maintain those relationships, be respectful of their club employees, but still be able to bring them back into that national team environment and produce great harmony”, says Graeme. But that’s not all. The breadth of the England squad means that players who normally play and start for their own club may not even get into the matchday squad for an England game, which can be tough on a player’s morale. Ensuring that every player feels valued, no matter their contribution to the game itself, echoes what business leaders need to do to keep their team happy, and morale high.

Demonstrating loyalty

Throughout Euro 2020, Harry Kane was slammed for his ‘tired’ performance, with critics bemoaning the striker’s failure to perform. However, with Kane’s brace of goals against Ukraine and extra time penalty against Denmark, those critics were soon silenced.

“It wasn’t blind loyalty”, says Graeme. “He obviously knew something about Kane, knew that he could still get the best out of him. But he didn’t let him get away with it, he substituted him out: he took a balanced approach, showing that that loyalty was still there, but giving the message that Kane needed to perform”.

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In any business, the ability to both show empathy and care and to make tough decisions is a must. While England’s Euro success story may not have been the ultimate success story, it has built on the foundations that were crafted for the 2018 World Cup. It is perfectly normal for a player - or an employee - to have times where peak performance is not quite reached, but the way in which this is handled is key. “He’s obviously got great technical knowledge of the game”, says Graeme, “but he’s also structured a culture around his players that supports them in the right manner”.

Emotional resilience

Every manager will have a story of a time when they have had to make a tough decision that could have a negative impact on others, or a time when they have been criticised - either publicly or internally - for decisions that they have made. While such situations are often unavoidable, the way in which you handle them can have a significant impact on how you are perceived as a manager.

During England’s penalty shootout against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, Southgate looked impossibly calm on the touchline, despite the inner turmoil that must have been going through his mind. The same has been true of his post-match interviews throughout the tournament, where - despite being accosted with a microphone just minutes after games where he knew his team could have performed better - he is still required to give an objective analysis of the game that will resonate with England fans.

“He seems to engage in the interviews as himself”, says Graeme. “His tone is measured, but he still says how he’s feeling - and I think his players and the fans will watch that and see a sense of balance”.

Southgate does not shy away from tough issues, but he also does not outwardly demonstrate any anger or upset in his manner. It is clear that he is a manager with a high level of emotional resilience: a man who knows that he can handle the backlash of unpopular selection decisions, such as relegating Grealish to the bench rather than giving him a place in the starting line up in a number of Euro 2020 games.

This emotional resilience - along with a sense of clarity and a firm vision of where he wants his England team to be - have no doubt contributed to the success of the current squad. As Graeme summarises, “As a result of Southgate’s personality, his manner and the way he behaves, I think there’s a high trust factor in him as a manager”. Could he be the man to bring football home in the 2022 World Cup?

Southgate’s leadership career has been aided by the insight of peers from other sectors. And Vistage group membership can help you in exactly the same way. Find out more here.

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