What England’s football coach can teach us about leadership

England may have lost the semi-final yesterday, but I’m still just a teensy bit in love with Gareth Southgate. Ok, he didn’t get the team to the World Cup Final, but he still achieved what no other coach has done for England since 1990. This unassuming, thoroughly decent, M&S waistcoat wearing bloke is the man who bought England together and inspired a generation to chuck in Fortnite and put on a pair of football boots again.

So yeah, just a teensy bit of a crush.

Despite coming so close but oh-so-far when it came to the final result, there’s a lot to love about Southgate’s leadership. Here are five things that all leaders can learn from him:

  1. There is power in preparation and process. As we all excruciatingly experienced watching the semi-final, sport is unpredictable. But many credit the team’s ‘no choke’ penalty shootout win over Columbia to Southgate’s relentless focus on preparation for high pressure moments just like that one. Preparation for all eventualities is crucial planning in a team. Leaders like Southgate ‘book end’ the future. What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best that can happen? How will we/I respond in either case?
  2. It’s about the team – not just the individual. Star players are all well and good, but Southgate instilled a team-based mindset which focused on the interdependence of the players. He understood that a high performing team is more about harnessing the different strengths of the individuals within the team, rather than any one player. I have no doubt that it was this approach that got them to the semi-finals.
  3. Demonstrate compassion. One of the England-Colombia match’s most memorable moments came when Southgate consoled Colombia midfielder Mateus Uribe. In this single act, he exemplified kindness and courage, and showed us that great leadership makes space for both ends of the spectrum – competition and compassion. He did this again last night when he checked up on each team member after they lost.
  4. Have the courage to be yourself. Authenticity is such an overused concept in leadership right now that it runs the risk of losing impact. But if you want to see authenticity embodied, look no further than Southgate. From the signature waistcoat he wears to every game, to his choice of players which heralded criticism, he is not afraid to stay true to himself. Ahead of England’s opening World Cup match against Tunisia, Southgate said “Pressure is what you perceive and very often that comes from listening to too much external noise, and actually we have to focus on the things we can control, and they’re things within our camp and within our team.”
  5. Learn from your mistakes and use them to help your team perform better. He said of his Euro 1996 penalty shootout miss, “I’ve learnt a million things from the day and the years that have followed it – the biggest thing being that when something goes wrong in your life, it doesn’t finish you.” He was not afraid to use that vulnerability for the betterment of the team he was leading.

These are such powerful leadership traits, regardless of whether they are displayed in business or sport. Gareth Southgate has taught us that you can be both a thoroughly nice guy and an exceptional leader. My crush is perhaps even bigger now that I have seen him as a leader in defeat.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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