I’ve read two articles recently that rightly laud Gareth Southgate’s leadership qualities, one published in the Huffington Post and one in Real Business. This is interesting in itself but what has struck me most is that much of the analysis of Southgate’s style of leadership is retrospective as if the recent World Cup campaign is the first time it has been noticed. Southgate’s name has also come up increasingly often in the IPA’s Stage 1 training workshops during the 10 Leader Exercise in the last two months – this never happened before the build-up to Russia 2018.

My personal view is that Southgate is a highly knowledgeable and impressive character who demonstrates more than traditional leadership qualities but is almost a personification of the 4 Enablers of Employee Engagement. As most readers will know, in 2009, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke co-authored and published Engaging for Success (also known as the MacLeod Review of Employee Engagement).  This report has become the cornerstone of thinking on engagement and identified the definitive four key enablers of employee engagement:

  • Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrativeabout the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.
  • Engaging managerswho focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people.
  • There is an informed employee voicethroughout the organisation, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally, employees are seen as central to the solution.
  • There is organisational integrity– the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours.                            

As far as strategic narrative is concerned, Real Business noted that Southgate had become a fashion icon and that, “his appearance was part of a conscious decision by the manager to instil a sense of pride in the team both on and off the pitch.” This instillation of a sense of pride was his clear strategic objective  and was communicated to the players and staff in such a way that a clear line of sight was provided to link behaviours off the pitch with performances on it. In both, the England players were almost one hundred percent exemplary. It is telling that the strategic objective was not the usual aim of a wish to progress to a specific stage of the tournament. Such an objective is open to too many variables to be credible and can often come across as arrogant or delusional.

Southgate proved himself to be an engaging manager who certainly coached and stretched people. He was able to do this partly by using his own experience of supposed failure in a penalty-shoot-out in 1996 for England and partly by a detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual. As a team, England achieved more than the sum of its parts through Southgate’s utilisation of strengths (for example, set-pieces meticulously rehearsed) and a recognition of weaknesses (the lack of a playmaker in midfield compensated by energetic pressing of the opponent). This is classic team-building.

For older observers, the encouragement of players to speak freely to the press was a remarkable shift from previous England managers. They came across as highly informed about their individual roles and the team objective but, above all, seemed relaxed and unburdened by the pressure that has blighted more naturally gifted generations that came before them. Southgate himself stated that he would listen to ideas that came from the players in a consultative style but was unafraid to make unpopular decisions to ensure the team objective was met.  

The integrity of the entire squad was a key factor in their popularity and it has been stated by many journalists that this England squad connected with the public in a way we had not seen before. They were likeable, as was Southgate and their values, quite evidently, matched his. There was no “dentist’s chair” moment as in Euro 1996 or a series of sullen, disinterested interviews as in South Africa 2010. As a result, poorer performances (against Belgium and Colombia) were quickly forgotten and a penalty shoot-out win in the second round was greeted as if a monumental psychological burden had been lifted from an entire nation. But, there is nothing wrong with a leader developing a “feel-good factor” that allows people to put disappointments into perspective - in fact, it is an essential leadership skill.

Above all, Southgate’s style proves that great leaders are not infallible but that, even when errors are made, people feel in a safe enough pair of hands that those mistakes will be learnt from and addressed. That, essentially, is how he made England supporters feel. Defeat in the semi-final was not greeted with universal cynical derision but with a genuine feeling that Croatia’s greater individual talent had won despite the rigorous planning and infectious enthusiasm displayed from the top to the bottom of the England squad. That started from Southgate, the quintessential Four Enabler-leader.