Leadership Lessons From Gareth Southgate

It’s the day after England’s 2-1 extra-time victory against Denmark in the semi-finals of the 2020 European Championships, securing a place in the final against Italy.  Let’s just pause and enjoy that sentence for a bit.  

For many of us, this is the first time this has happened in our lifetime.  After 55 years of hurt, it really might be coming home!  Many things have contributed to this success, but undoubtedly a key factor has been Gareth Southgate’s leadership.  Whatever happens this Sunday, Southgate has done an incredible job and has achieved what, for many England fans, has seemed like an impossible dream for years.  So, what can school leaders learn about leadership from the England manager?  Let’s unpick this from the words of the man himself.

“I’m just so pleased. I was looking at the big screen and I saw David Seaman up there. The team-mates that played with me, I can’t change that, so that’s always going to hurt.”

Domain specific knowledge and credibility really matters for leadership.  Southgate has played and performed at the highest level himself, so he understands what his team are going through and can draw on his own knowledge and experience on the football pitch to shape his decisions as a leader . This also gives him credibility and means that players are more likely to follow him.  If as school leaders we want great teaching to permeate our school, we need to understand what the evidence says this looks like and have a track record of demonstrating it ourselves.  We can also then draw on this knowledge and skills when driving improvements in a team.

Whilst this domain specific knowledge is important, it probably isn’t enough on it’s own.  If this was the case, every expert in a domain would be a brilliant leader.  So what other behaviours and approaches have also shaped him as a leader and provide useful reflections for school leaders?

“Results are a consequence of doing things well and having high standards, improving the detail of how we play.”

This emphasises the importance of focusing on the process instead of the outcomes.  We won’t get brilliant outcomes for our students by just increasing our targets or hoping they will happen!  We need to put our energy into improving the specifics of teaching e.g. supporting metacognition, vocabulary development,  formative assessment and strong routines, relationships and expectations.  If we do this, the results will follow.

“We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.”

A track record of disappointing results do not have to define us – as individuals, curriculum teams or a school.  WIth the right focus, team and leadership, great things are possible.

“We have to focus on a system and really try to hone it, work on it, improve it.”

Southgate talks a great deal about ‘sustainable strategy’.  Him and his team have meticulously analysed the performance of the team.  This has involved identifying the strengths, but also pinpointing the weaknesses.  From this, they have come up with a plan to exploit the strengths and develop the weaknesses.  They then have confidence in the plan and stick with it. The will review and make slight adjustments, but they won’t chop and change the plan wholesale.  The most effective school leaders take a similar approach.  If they decide that, for example, ‘explicit vocabulary instruction’ is a key improvement focus, they will stick with it for 2-3 years, rather than changing to something else after two terms.

“I didn’t like it as a player when I felt a coach was fudging the reasons for leaving me out. As a player, I wanted to know where I was lacking in my game and where I could improve in order to get back in the team.”

If we are going to grow our team, we need honest candour and specific feedback. As leaders we have a professional obligation to help individuals within our team to grow and improve.  This requires us to be honest with them and have the domain specific knowledge to give them very specific feedback about how to improve e.g. we can’t help a teacher to develop metacognitive teaching approaches, if we don’t have a deep understanding of the research evidence behind this ourselves.

“For me, the biggest reminder, in the seniors, was that we must always have humility.”

We should never believe that we are the finished product and should always be looking to learn from others.  This is a really important trait for us as leaders, but it’s also a trait that we want to instil in our teams.  It’s not about ‘superstar’ individuals, but rather a strong and cohesive team who learn from each other and beyond.

This is also why Southgate surrounds himself with experts in his support staff (including a former Southend United player!)  He also seeks the advice of other experts outside of football such as olympic sports coaches, business leaders and military leaders. More on this here. Twitter is great for this.  It gives you an insight into what schools all over the world are doing.

“I like players to have responsibility; to think about what we are asking them to do, to have an opinion on the way we are asking them to play and the way we are asking them to train,”

Empowerment is key to strong leadership.  It shows trust in your team and means that the team becomes stronger than the sum of its parts.  Teachers are far more likely to engage in improving their own practice, if they have been involved in determining the focus of this improvement.  This gives them ownership of the improvement focus.

“It’s important to recognise every player is different in their own characteristics, personality, and what they respond to.  As a coach, you always have to be there to support the person – improving them as a player becomes secondary to a degree.  But if a player feels that you respect them and you want to help them, then they are more likely to listen to you and follow you.”

The best leaders invest time in the individuals within their team.  They get to know their strengths, weaknesses, what motivates them and what other factors might be having an impact on their performance.  They then work alongside them to maximise their performance.  This can’t be done quickly.  It takes time and needs to be sustained, but it is time well spent as a leader.

“I think it is important to listen and I think it is important to get a feel of what motivates the individual.”

Great leaders listen intently and with interest.  This helps them to understand the issue they are facing from a range of perspectives and so shape a more effective solution.

“When something goes wrong in your life, it doesn’t finish you, and you should become braver, knowing that you’ve got to go for things in life and don’t regret because you didn’t try to be as good as you might be.”

Resilience is key to leadership.  Despite our very best intentions, things will go wrong and others will fail.  This is a perfectly normal part of life.  What’s important is that we learn from our failures as much as our successes – and that we encourage and support our team members to do the same.  We all remember Southgate’s penalty miss in Euro 96?

“Whenever you name a team and whenever you pick a squad, that is when you have to make the most difficult calls. To tell a player, ‘I’m not selecting you, and these are the reasons why…’ it’s tough.”

When implementing a strategy, there will be occasions when we have to make difficult decisions.  Communicating these to team members can be hard, however, the best leaders will do this with compassion.  They will explain the reasons for this decision and make it clear how this fits with the overall strategy of the team.

“Always, as a coach, you have to be thinking not to flood the players with information. You have to think what’s key for the player, for that team, and how do we deliver it in a way that it might stick and have an effect.”

A list of 40-50 improvement priorities for a team will be overwhelming and have limited impact.  Think carefully about what needs to improve, distil this down to a few specific priorities and communicate this clearly.  Then focus on this relentlessly and obsessively!

“I cant speak highly enough of the whole squad and whole group of staff because it is so united in there. The level of work has been great and their commitment to each other, you don’t get through with just 11 players. They are all top people”

Surround yourself with brilliant people and value the contribution of everybody in the team or organisation.  Likewise make sure every member of the team understands and appreciates the role that their colleagues play in achieving the overall vision.

“I’m slightly concerned, because as a centre-half who took a lot of knocks to the head I’m not normally synonymous with being a fashion icon.”

Lead with humour and don’t take yourself too seriously.  Show your human side.

Leadership is a complex and often messy business.  There is no magic formula to it and it isn’t just as simple as adopting a new ‘leadership style’ or focusing on generic leadership skills.  So much about effective leadership is based on what we know about the domain we are leading and the experiences we have had within this domain.  This domain specific knowledge coupled with other leadership behaviours described in this post are key when it comes to galvanising and focusing a team of people on a common goal.  One thing is for sure, we would probably all benefit from being a little bit more like Gareth!

Shaun Allison

Shaun is Director of Education for DMAT and Director of Durrington Research School. In 2021-22, he will be co-leading two training programmes:

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