Leading the Lions to the final – what we can learn from Southgate’s leadership style

southgate news landing image

By Joseph Ballantine, ILM Industry Manager

This past weekend, so many of us have been served an intoxicating brew of delight mixed with disappointment, with England’s loss at the UEFA EURO 2020 final. Losing via penalties is a bitter pill to swallow, but I can’t help but feel a huge sense of pride in the English team leadership, and every player whose skill and integrity graced the field on Sunday evening.

Italy may have lifted the trophy, but the England team manager’s authentic, humble and value-led approach has resonated beyond the result and provided an example of behaviours that not only constitute a great leader, but an empowering one.

Accountability in the face of defeat

Following the agonising defeat by penalties, it took mere moments for Southgate to assume responsibility for the decision on the penalty-taker line up when asked by the media. In the press conference directly after the game, he took complete ownership of the decision and defeat.

He didn’t wait. He didn’t insinuate that responsibility lay anywhere else. No players were shoved under the proverbial bus of blame and, in fact, he went so far as to say of his players, “they are not to blame for that.”

I found myself a little in awe on Sunday, and deeply proud of his strength of character. A commander knows that his troops’ performances are only as good as his own leadership.

Leadership through values

Integrity and humility are qualities that can only be faked for a short period of time before circumstances blow the cover of ego and conceit. Gareth Southgate quite literally exudes these qualities in the way he interacts with others. Besides this genuine aura of grace, the way his team has adopted his manners and exude the same grace stands as proof of Southgate’s values. The English team played a clean game against the Italian side, which was reflected in the stats:

Fouls: Italy - 21; England - 13
Yellow cards: Italy - 5; England - 1
Offsides: Italy - 5; England - 1

While some might be tempted to take away that it’s brute force that wins through, I must err on the side of integrity. In truth, it may not always win cups, but most certainly wins respect, shared team values and culture, and longstanding camaraderie cemented in wins earned the right way and losses withstood, together.

Shared leadership

southgate news image 1

Gareth Southgate has proven that he’s not only interested in churning out skilled football players. He’s invested himself in developing young, talented sportsmen into role models and icons of hope. Especially during times of economic and social difficulties, we often find ourselves looking to sports for relief; for inspiration, community and a sense of cultural togetherness. We are looking for someone to lead us to hope.

In a recent letter penned for readers of The Players Tribune, Southgate writes, “I tell them [the players] that when you go out there, in this shirt, you have the opportunity to produce moments that people will remember forever. You are a part of an experience that lasts in the collective consciousness of our country.”

Strong leadership laced with empathy

I have to admit, I had a small lump in my throat when Bukayo Saka missed the final decisive penalty kick, ultimately handing the win over to Italy. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t the loss that upended my emotions, but the way in which manager Gareth Southgate emerged onto the field and consoled Saka in his moment of grief.

The word “consoled” is inadequate to describe what we witnessed. Southgate’s embrace resembled the way that a father cradles a distraught child, with Saka burying his face in Southgate’s neck. The gesture demonstrates that Southgate understands only too well the heartache that Saka was feeling, and that no team member should confront such disappointment alone.

As Southgate leads and nurtures his team, his message is clear: It’s OK to fail. And this is something that a leader in any role has to accept - there is no shame in failure. We learn through failure. We hone our skills. We sharpen our aim. We get up again, head held high.

Leadership that inspires equality

Time and again, Gareth Southgate has welcomed diversity to his team, players from all walks of life, because he understands the journey from his own humble beginnings. In his aforementioned letter to The Players Tribune, he muses that back at home, he sits “below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order” – just another regular guy.

Though Southgate knows full well that being in the public eye, both he and his team bear a responsibility to inspire the community to do better at being human. “It’s their (our) duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate."

Leadership that inspires and empowers

Southgate has inspired tight-knit unity in his young team, which has drawn a lot of praise by the media and football pundits alike. He has, in essence, nurtured a team of young leaders by role modelling behaviours and values.

Southgate seems to effortlessly elicit the best from each player, through both his ability to identify precise skills and qualities, and his innate habit of treating each player with respect and dignity. In turn, this team – many of whom are under the age of 25 – have developed maturity and leadership skills beyond their years. This puts them in a great position for their future careers.

At ILM we recognise that leadership skills can be embedded early in an individual’s career and can be realised at all levels.

A leader I could happily follow to find hope

southgate news image 2

At the end of the day, any sadness that I feel over the EURO 2020 result is short-lived in comparison to the pride, warmth-of-heart and sense of solidarity that Gareth Southgate and his team have inspired. With his genuine concern for his players and his insistence at playing the game with integrity, Southgate shows us that leadership is a journey. He shows that he’s still learning, and that is why he is in no way better than anyone else, for his lofty title, but just as human, flawed even.

Southgate is a natural leader, one I’d follow for many a mile, and many a year, and one I aspire to learn from, myself.