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The Lessons Leaders Can Learn From Gareth Southgate

Footballs on grass

The hopes of England football fans are growing again.

The Three Lions finished top of their qualifying group, enjoyed a rare victory over old rivals Germany and are now through to the semi-finals, having cruised past Ukraine.

Will football finally come home? Time will tell.

But whatever the outcome of Euro 2020, there are lessons the England boss can teach us about leadership.

When Gareth Southgate first became the manager of the national team, the perception was he got the job mainly because of a lack of realistic alternatives.

Yet, he led the squad to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and has guided the team through the current tournament without conceding a goal so far.

To understand the reasons behind his success and the leadership skills others can learn from him, I sat down for a chat with Tienie Loubser, The BCF Group's learning and development director.

Big decisions

One of the aspects that have stood out about Southgate's time as the England manager is that he is not afraid to make tough decisions.

He first showed this characteristic when he dropped England's record goal scorer Wayne Rooney from his squad before the last World Cup.

And he has displayed it again during this tournament, removing talisman Harry Kane from the action against Scotland, despite his team searching for a winning goal against their rivals.

Tienie says leaders must be bold and be willing to make big decisions.

He said: "In a business environment, let's say your strongest salesperson has the poorest behaviour.

"The tough, but correct decision, could be to let them go because their behaviour is contaminating the rest of the team and is affecting their performance."


Tienie believes another great strength of the England manager is his empathy - a crucial skill for leaders.

Southgate understands the needs, experiences and perspectives of those in his team.

He had first-hand experience of failure on the big stage, having missed a decisive penalty against Germany during Euro 96.

And he understands that one poor performance does not mean someone should be dropped. Instead, he looks to work with them to improve and develop.

Empathetic leadership is something we often explore during our management training courses and interpersonal skills training.

"Everyone is made up of strengths and limitations," says Tienie "and sometimes limitations can take over, and you fail to perform as well as you can.

"That doesn't mean that person will consistently perform poorly. When Harry Kane was substituted, it didn't mean he was no longer able to perform at that level. He just had one game where limitations took over.

"In the business world, it is crucial leaders take a similar approach and are able to show empathy and compassion and ensure they don't interact with people as if they are just a resource.

"Let's say a salesperson isn't meeting their target for two months in a row. Do you approach them and say ‘if you don't meet your target, you are out of here' or ‘I see you haven't reached your target, what is going on, are you ok, what can I do to help you?'?

"The ‘are you ok question' versus the ‘you need to pull up your socks' approach is the humanistic element because you understand it may just be a blip rather than consistent poor performance."


Many leaders will have been in a position where they have seen particularly impressive individuals among their workforce.

But successful, healthy teams are not built on one or two high-achievers.

They are, instead, founded on a collective spirit where the team is more important than the individual.

This England team consists of star players at big clubs, a few who may not be an automatic pick for their club teams, and others who have taken a different path to the top that has seen them play in lower leagues.

Tienie believes the way Southgate pulls this diverse mix together is a crucial lesson from Southgate's leadership.

He said: "It is the whole concept of having a team of stars rather than a star in the team.

"Everyone that comes into a business brings their knowledge and a suitcase full of information they carry with them from previous roles.

"Leaders need to help them integrate that knowledge and information into what you are doing in your team to enhance your business.

"It is about ensuring they feel part of a team and understanding other people's behaviours and experiences.

"Having core values and strong visions help to enhance the team dynamic."


Keen football fans will know there are managers out there who spend much of the match shouting aggressively from the sidelines, talking players through almost every part of the game.

Southgate's approach is different.

The quietly-spoken boss is passionate. But he trusts his players to go out on the pitch, perform and get the result. He doesn't try to over-manage but encourages accountability and ownership.

Tienie believes it is crucial business leaders avoid the micromanagement trap – a topic we regularly discuss during our business coaching courses and management training.

He said: "There are times when you need to be loud and offer a point of view. But most of the time, as a leader, you should be empowering others to work autonomously to meet business objectives.

"Ultimately, Southgate can't step on to the pitch and play the game.

"In business, micromanaging and telling people exactly what to do emphasises that you don't trust them to do the job.

"Offering a point of view and direction, but empowering people to do their own thing and make their own decisions is the best approach."

As Steve Jobs famously once said: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

Or, as my mum used to say, "you don't buy a dog and bark yourself."


As a leader, much of your ability to influence others is determined by how you are perceived.

People want to believe they can trust those in charge and that they are competent.

And they will base those decisions on how managers act when faced with different situations.

Southgate's approach to leadership is measured, and he removes emotion from situations.

"The England manager presents himself well," says Tienie. "He shows the right amount of excitement in victory and is not too down when things don't go right.

"When you listen to what he says after a win, he tends to offer up strengths and limitations of his team.

"How leaders come across and are perceived is important. Bosses who are erratic, narcissistic or punitive will find that team members are talking about them behind their back. And these sorts of behaviours detract from people wanting to work for you.

"The more objective you stay and the less emotional you are about what happens in your team, the better it becomes.

"Feedback, for example, should be factual and in the moment, rather than an emotive discussion with lots of conflict."

Continual learning

Leaders who have an appetite for continuous learning tend to have an edge.

Whether it is keeping updated with the latest trends, improving skills, or understanding different approaches and perspective, a thirst for knowledge helps leaders gain an advantage.

It's one of the reasons leaders with huge experience approach us about our management training and business coaching.

Southgate has shown a willingness to learn throughout his management career. As well as drawing on the experience of his infamous penalty miss, he has spent time with coaches from the England rugby team and has travelled to America to observe NFL coaches.

It is a trait that impresses Tienie.

He said: "We either succeed or we learn. Those who do something about what they have learnt and change so that it does not happen again are those that grow and become stronger.

"Those who don't and think ‘my way is the right way', and keep doing the same thing, don't become stronger leaders. They stay the same.

"Southgate has learnt and has got to a mature stage of leadership based on the things that have happened to him and how he has changed with them.

"He learns and diversifies. He is not afraid to say to himself ‘traditionally we have coached this way, but what if we do it that way?'

"A business I worked with sent their people to go and work for someone else in a similar industry for a week. And they had some of the other organisation's people work for them for a week. It was about exchanging ideas and seeing how things work in different industries.

"Two things happened. Our guys felt they were better off where they were. And secondly, they learnt something new, or at least not what to do."

If your leaders are looking to develop their skills, get in touch today to find out more about our training options.

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

Keen to find out more about business coaching? Get in touch to see how our Institute of Leadership and Management business coaching courses and bespoke training options can help. Or, click here to learn more about becoming a business coach to others.

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