Reflecting on EURO 2020 Leadership Lessons from Gareth Southgate

What can business leaders learn from Gareth Southgate's leadership style?

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There’s no doubt that this year’s EURO football tournament lifted the public mood. The first major sporting tournament in over a year really served as a watershed moment for this country before restrictions were lifted, carrying with it a great deal more hope than any other tournament. England fans in particular had quite the ride – reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time in over half a century. 

The man to thank for England’s game changing luck is Gareth Southgate - who has undoubtedly delivered the strongest English football team in a generation. Despite narrowly missing out on the elusive trophy in the final, there have been many praises for his leadership style. 

There’s actually several facets of Southgate’s leadership style that make for a good leader – and in turn many of these lessons can be applied to the business world. There’s actually never been a more challenging time for business leaders. After over a year in a global pandemic and all the associated challenges that come with that, the easing of restrictions in the UK are forcing organisations across all sectors to confront this ‘new normal’ that’s been often talked about but not yet put into practice. 

Below are some of the specifics of Gareth South gate’s leadership approach and what leadership lessons organisations can take away. 

Accountability & tough decision making 

“It’s my responsibility,” Southgate proclaimed following England’s penalty shoot-out defeat against Italy in this year’s Euros final. A sentiment that perfectly encapsulates his management style – he doesn’t shirk away from his accountability as a leader. If we look at penalty shoot-outs in particular (a highly stressful time for any team), it’s interesting to note that Southgate’s approach differs from many other coaches and managers. Rather than asking for volunteers, he makes the selection himself. A strategy that takes the pressure off team members to volunteer, but gives him an opportunity to take the flack if his choices don’t work out. 

Leadership Lesson:
Don’t shy away from making the big decisions, and recognise when your team need you to do so. Leadership is all about accountability, and your colleagues will appreciate when you have their back in high pressured situations – no matter the final outcome. 

Know when to delegate

While there is no doubt that Southgate has overall control over the team, he’s not afraid to delegate and recognises the importance of having leadership on the pitch as well from the side-lines. He’s often stressed the importance of encouraging “independent thinkers”, the need for players to “own the process” and exercise initiative. After all, being able to follow instructions is all well and good if everything goes to plan, but the ability to make critical decisions in the moment is vital, as is giving players the confidence they need to lead on the pitch. 

Leadership Lesson:
The key to leadership is good delegation is an old adage, but for a reason. While employees need strong leadership, they also need the confidence and ability to make decisions on their own, or recognise when they need to do so. This is perhaps even more pertinent in the current climate where remote working will continue to play a large part in many organisations – making micro-management virtually impossible. 

Fostering a strong culture 

The culture of the current England squad is a marked difference and improvement in comparison to the past two decades. Despite previous teams consisting of some of the most talented and highly sought after players in the world – they didn’t always operate as a unit. By all accounts, Southgate has worked to ensure that the current England squad have a tight bond – there’s no cliques based on club level alliances, they’re encouraged to spend time together off the pitch and they’re made to feel proud of being part of the team. The results have certainly paid off in the past two major tournaments. 

Leadership Lesson:
Pre-pandemic some organisations might have been able to overlook or skate over the importance of company culture – but not anymore. The impact of Covid-19 means that a good company culture is not just important for success, but survival. The traditional fabric of a 9-5 office environment can no longer be taken for granted as the basis for company culture; work from home will continue for many, and hybrid working is set to bring its own challenges so leaders need think creatively about how to foster it. 

Resilience

“Those sorts of moments in your life don’t have to define you. You have to work your way through them and develop resilience.” In this quote Southgate is referring to his infamous missed penalty in the 1996 Euro semi-finals, costing England a place in the final. Alongside his own personal feelings of guilt that he had to carry around, it was a move that seemingly came to define his career, overshadowing everything else that he had achieved…until now. 

If there had to be one word to describe Southgate, it’s resiliency. He’s not let that one action define his career, in fact he’s bounced back from it and importantly, it’s shaped his leadership style. He’s widely described as being an empathetic and understanding manager which has no doubt been shaped by his own experience. 

Leadership Lesson:
In the business world, resilience is a highly desired quality for both leaders and the people they lead. Qualities such as candour, resourcefulness, selflessness, humility, empathy and agility are all associated with resilient leaders. 

However, even the most resilient people can run out of steam. Think of resilience as a battery that can run out of charge – and after the events of the past year it’s easy to understand why some of these batteries might be running on empty.  Organisations can take steps to help build and sustain resilience skills by taking the time to assess culture, leaders and people. Once the weak links have been identified, it will be essential to provide practical tools to build resilience in those who may need it, and restore resilience to those who may have depleted their batteries in the early days of the pandemic.

Not being afraid to confront weaknesses

In the 2018 World Cup, the England team – much to everyone’s surprise – won a penalty shoot-out in a crucial knock out stage of a major tournament. Now, you don’t need to be an avid football follower to be all too aware of the team’s somewhat cursed luck when it comes to penalties – with Southgate himself still bearing the burden for his missed attempt in 1996. 

It therefore seems somewhat poetic that Southgate himself was the manager to turn this luck around. Rather than ignoring the issue or writing it down to luck as previous managers have done, he’s taken active steps to improve the team’s chances. He forced the team to relentlessly practice when they were exhausted (to recreate the conditions in which they’d be taking them), working with players on an individual level to hone their technique, and really working on their mental strength to deal with the pressure. 

Leadership Lesson:
Confront that elephant in the room. If there’s an issue that constantly plagues your organisation, don’t shy away from it and hope it will go away. Take active steps to turn it around and make everyone an active part in that process. 

Despite not quite claiming European victory this summer, the team already have their sights set on the 2022 World Cup in under 18 months’ time. Fresh from defeat, Southgate will undoubtedly come away with his own lessons from this tournament, in turn making him a better leader and the team stronger. 
In a similar vein, business leaders also need this moment of reflection. The very fabric of how some organisations operate had to change overnight, with constant setbacks and uncertainties that the Covid-19 pandemic created.

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