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  • Writer's pictureClaire Green

Gareth Southgate: Lessons in Leadership

During the last week, manager of the men’s England football team, Gareth Southgate, has been centre stage. Following the brilliant 4-0 victory against Ukraine in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, Southgate’s leadership is being praised universally. This, though, has not always been the case. The role of the England manager is one of the most scrutinised jobs in our country and Southgate has certainly been on the sharp end of criticism many times in the past. This is the double-edged nature of high profile leadership it seems: the manager is accountable regardless of the result.

Southgate’s deserved praise this weekend, and his wonderful post-match interview following the quarter-final victory (in which, generously, his first thoughts were for those players who hadn’t made the team or even squad), made me reflect on his leadership and the immense accountability this involves. Prior to the tournament, Southgate boldly wrote an impressive article in ‘The Players’ Tribune’ entitled Dear England in which he recognised the pressures of leading England through international competitions, defended his players for their stance against racism in football and recognised the importance they have as role models in society more widely. The article set the tone for how Southgate wanted to lead in this tournament and his approach has been nothing but exemplary throughout.

Prior to the tournament, Southgate also appeared in an episode of ‘The High Performance Podcast’ with sports broadcaster Jake Humphrey and leading organisational psychologist Professor Damian Hughes. For anyone with an interest in leadership, I would thoroughly recommend watching or listening to the full hour and a half interview (and indeed other episodes featuring a huge variety of inspirational figures). After about twenty minutes of the episode, I decided to press pause and download the transcript from YouTube so that I could keep some of the brilliantly inspiring quotes. It was clear immediately that what Southgate was describing in regards to leadership in football was absolutely applicable to leadership more widely, and definitely to leadership in schools. I have tried in what follows to encapsulate the key lessons in leadership that Southgate articulates so eloquently in the podcast and apply these to leadership within schools.

Lesson 1 – Culture is king

Southgate defines high performance as the “never ending quest for perfection that we know we would probably never get to….doing the basics brilliantly but then diving into all the other detail that can add the small margins that help you to win.” He also emphasises that culture is created by people: "…that’s where the importance of team comes in…[staff in all departments] are the experts, I've got to help them, give them the space to be able to do their job to the best possible level. And if everybody does that, then the accumulation of all those things will give us the best chance of winning.”

This relentless desire for improvement is something we see in high performing schools. Leaders do not rest; they continue to strive for improvement or better outcomes for students year on year. “Doing the basics brilliantly” before building in marginal gains might refer to aspects such as ensuring high levels of attendance and punctuality, accepted boundaries around conduct and a clear expectation that learning is the priority, regardless of subject, phase or even the time of the day. Once these ‘basics’ are in place, we can then seek to empower leaders at all levels to identify and address the areas in which marginal gains can be achieved. The recognition here that there are leaders at all levels who are experts in their particular realms is really important. While Southgate is clearly incredibly knowledgeable about football, he knows that there are leaders working in communications, physiotherapy, finance etc whose expertise he requires for the team to ultimately be successful. Leaders in schools know this to be true: consider the range of expertise required to run a large secondary school and it is clearly impossible for one leader at the top (or even a whole senior leadership team, arguably) to act alone. Domain-specific knowledge[1] is essential and the good leader knows to recognise this and factor this into the wider improvement plan for the school overall. Empowering subject or pastoral leaders, finance or IT teams, learning support or safeguarding staff is key to the overall success of the school. The leader’s role then, is not to be all-knowing, but all-empowering, which takes real humility – something that Southgate demonstrates in spades in the podcast.

Southgate also describes enjoyment as a key aspect of successful culture: “I want them to enjoy it. How do we get people to want to come at every age group, be with England, enjoy the experience, want to come back? Boys have got options, decisions, family ties with other countries that are quite strong as well so we've got to have an environment where…. they feel there's a chance of winning, that can help as well. But I think wanting to be there, wanting to be part of something that they feel is a high level, is enjoyable, that culturally is right, I think that is very important to people.” This is a pertinent point in terms of transition. When students have the possibility of applying to various schools or sixth forms, they are making comparisons and a key driver might be emotional: will I feel I’ll fit in, or will I enjoy being a part of this school? Interestingly, Southgate refers to ‘winning’ as an incentive here. In schools, reputationally, students may look to examination results or other outcomes, such as Ofsted judgements, alongside the ‘feel’ they get for the school culture at open or induction events. Where there is choice, there is competition, and competing culturally is tricky: it’s conceptually rather woolly and very subjective. This is arguably where the vision or core values of the school come to the fore: if these are evident even in a short visit, it might be the difference between a student choosing your school or the one down the road.

Lesson 2 – Knowing what excellence looks like

Gareth Southgate describes his early career as a manager at Middlesbrough in the podcast, and recognises that part of the reason he found it tricky was because he didn’t know what excellence in management looked like; he knew what it looked like as a player, but not as a manager. When he left his first managerial role, Southgate worked in youth development and television and it was here that he believes he gained the knowledge of what excellence really was: “And because of the different experiences I had covering games with television, I knew the fulfilment would be coaching, helping other people to achieve, putting something in…. And so through that process, I went and saw loads of different things, I learned a lot more about young player development, I learned a lot more about elite environments, I learnt a lot more about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses…. I just recognized that every day you're learning new things and trying to improve in every area really.”

This idea of ‘learning on the job’ is certainly something we see in education. Experience allows teachers and leaders to create a picture of excellence in their given area of expertise. This might be in terms of what model student work looks like in different key stages or it might be in regards to excellence in leadership, safeguarding or pastoral care. Having a model for success means the subject matter can be explained to others, who, in turn, can attempt to emulate it; teaching personified. This positive cycle, however, can only take place with experience of seeing various levels of practice being demonstrated. So perhaps, as Southgate suggests, to truly be able to create a successful culture, a level of experience is necessary. Clearly, this is very much context-dependent and it does not necessarily mean staff need years of experience before they can lead. I would argue that the hourly (or less) ‘chunking’ of a secondary school timetable allows experience across phase and subject to be gained in much less time than is the case in other careers. Knowledge of excellence in terms of school leadership may actually be easier to achieve than for an international football manager who only gets to see the group of players and other staff members periodically throughout the year!

Lesson 3 – Role modelling the importance of the team over individuals

Southgate talks at length about his managerial role as one of empowering others – players and other staff – to ensure each can realise their own levels of high performance. He also talks about the values that underpin this approach and the focus on respecting the success of the team over everything else. With football as high profile as it is, there could be a danger that personality or vanity for individual attention or plaudits might undermine the team’s success. Southgate argues that “it's unrealistic to expect everybody to be thinking about the team all the time, that's just not realistic but we've got to breed culture, cultivate that as much as possible. Always, my job is to bring it back to the team, what does it mean for the team? What did we learn from that? How could we do that differently?”

In schools, leaders have this same responsibility: how to ensure that all the individual components of the school are moving in the right direction to achieve success for the organisation overall. This is a complex task indeed; especially when for most secondary schools this relies on the interactions of over a thousand people every day! This strategic aspect of leadership relies on strong lines of communication within the school’s line management structure. There needs to be real clarity about what is happening within departments or teams so that senior leaders with strategic oversight can target priorities for improvement with laser-like focus.

Southgate also stresses the importance of his senior players. He describes Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson as “unquestionable in their professionalism,.. unquestionable in their preparation. They want the team to do well. Of course they've got individual motivation but there isn't a young player that could come in to the squad and watch those two and think, well, actually they duck gym sessions or they duck their recovery, not a chance. So when you've got those role models within the group, new players come in, they see how, the first thing you do in a new group is how does it work here? How's it done? And the senior players create that.” This could easily apply within a school setting, either in terms of staff or students. Senior staff should clearly model the desired core values of the school. Equally, I would argue that student leadership is key to embedding core values across a large school. Like Henderson and Kane, student leaders have the capacity to influence their peers in a way that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for staff to do. This is one of many reasons I describe sixth form students in general, but student leaders in schools specifically, as role models.

This concept of role models is explored further by Southgate when he describes the impact footballers can have off the pitch: “You see with Raheem [Stirling] and with Marcus [Rashford], good examples of…leading outside the game in the things they've affected and what they've done. So they're incredible role models for their communities that they grew up in, for kids that think they could be like them, for young footballers and with the national team, I think that has a different level of scrutiny. Yes, people want us to win, but I also think there's a responsibility to affect things beyond just the football and maybe that's impossible to do all of that [sic] but I think we should aim to try and do it.” Southgate’s ambition here is clear: he recognises the high profile England players have and wants to ensure that they are setting a positive example in society overall. This is something we hope for in our students; that their education doesn’t just prepare them to pass exams in a series of subjects at age 16 or 18, but that it prepares them to be well-rounded young people who make a positive contribution to the world.

Lesson 4 – Authenticity

When describing how he feeds back constructively to his players, Southgate talks about the fact that he very rarely shouts in the dressing room, and instead takes a calm and measured approach which focuses with absolute clarity on tactical areas for improvement. He talks about previous England managers who may have taken a very different, much more emotive approach. In his summary of learning from defeat in the semi-finals of the World Cup, Southgate argues “The biggest things for me are actually the things we did right and making sure that we continue to do those things right but evolve them.” He talks about a rigorous approach to finding out what went wrong, but also the need to over-communicate the positive: “I don't think you should be shy of repeating the right messages.” Southgate believes that this is one of the reasons that there is so much respect among the England team and wider staff; because there is trust that this is Southgate’s genuine belief as the right approach.

This approach is one I completely endorse. Whilst we shouldn’t shy away from pointing out areas for improvement (and be very specific about what these areas are and how they can be addressed), a focus on the positive can breed a culture in which stakeholders actively seek continual improvement: the much-discussed ‘Pygmalion effect.’ Likewise, authenticity in school leadership and in teaching is vital; teenagers are quick to spot when this is not the case and there is no surer way to lose a group of students than to attempt to be something we are not. This is why relationships are key to successful schools. Students need to believe that we care and that their education and development matters to us, as people.

Describing the team ethos and work-life balance he seeks to implement, Southgate fondly recalls: “I was in Argentina a few years ago with a team and I walk into a room and the coaches were horrified that the squad were all watching Love Island together. I remember having the conversation that actually, forget what they're watching, it's the fact that every player is sat in that room engaging on a shared objective, that's where the strength of relationships have been.” Southgate has created a culture where relationships have been cemented and the players are a genuine team, achieving amazing things both on and off the pitch.

As Southgate reflects in answer to the final question of the podcast interview, “We don't enjoy people being successful enough, do we?” Regardless of what happens in the semi-final on Wednesday night, it is great to see the country enjoying his, and his team’s success; especially after such a challenging year. Recognising student and staff success within our schools might just have the same uplifting impact – let’s give it a go!


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