There’s something about Southgate

Much has been written and admired about Gareth Southgate’s leadership since he became the England men’s football team manager in 2016. Clearly, he’s up there. But the letter ‘Dear England’ penned by Southgate to the nation ahead of the upcoming UEFA European Championship, sets his own bar even higher and provides a benchmark that leaders should be straining to reach. Through his writing, he shows a strength of character that’s rooted in sport but good for society.

To me, leadership is about society. Why? Because it’s about people.

If you are privileged enough to lead people, you need to keep that in mind, each and every day. What you say, how you say it and the results of your actions are going home with people. Leaders have an immense amount of power, and in the right hands that power can be used for great good.

Most people know right from wrong, good from evil and justice from injustice, and what Southgate does so brilliantly is use values and unarguable truths to state that. As you read the line ‘My belief is that everyone has pride’, you find yourself nodding. You agree, and you’re now hooked into his message to the point that you almost want to prove your pride to him. Marcus Rashford has also demonstrated this leadership and communications technique to perfection throughout his campaign to support children in poverty. No child should go hungry. Bingo.

Southgate’s message, style and tone is not only effective, it’s refreshing. I’ve seen my share of pushy, aggressive, ‘win at all costs’ leaders, and although yes, they sometimes do win, everybody else loses, and what’s the cost of that? Southgate demonstrates an alternative image of masculine leadership, a tonic. He has talked openly and honestly about failure and fear. He has said time and time again that winning isn’t everything, and that how people conduct themselves and why people are motivated in the first place are absolutely fundamental to what success looks like.

Leaders can choose to use their ‘power for good’, just as Rashford and Southgate have. It’s not their fame or fortune that enables that, it’s their values and their ability to authentically communicate those values across political lines and divides.

The England men’s football team manager, Gareth Southgate.

Southgate calls out the criticism that he, his players and many other people in the public eye face when it comes to ‘getting involved in politics’:

‘Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.I have never believed that we should just stick to football.’

This is such an important and welcome stance. When we’re seeing organisation’s like Basecamp banning workplace conversations about politics, we need to see more leaders who get that work is political and who understand and support people to be active members in shaping our society.

Southgate also states that his players feel ‘liberated in being their true selves’ the power and importance of this should not be lost or glossed over. People can’t keep up an act forever, and if they try to, they’ll likely be ill. We cannot keep expecting carbon cutouts to follow some rule book called ‘how things are around here’. If we are to achieve a better diversity of thought, people have to feel able and supported to be themselves and bring their own style and interests with them.

Southgate’s points are relevant for all leaders. We are role models, beyond the confines of our Zoom screens. Think about the people who you work with and the organisations you work within, the clients you serve and the partners and suppliers with whom you do business. Think about who you fund, and who you don’t. Who’s in the room and who’s not. Are you always happy that you’re ‘doing the right thing’? Do you ever have a niggle…could this be better for people, for society? If you think it could be better, it can be, if you say it. That is what powerful, political leadership looks like. In my experience it’s often those who don’t benefit from the status quo who speak up to try and improve things; women, people of colour, people on low incomes, people with disabilities and people who are marginalised, this takes a huge amount of energy.

We’ve seen this demonstrated by tennis star Naomi Osaka too, who despite facing fierce criticism for simply wanting to prioritise her health said; “I’m going to take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”

We need more allies like Southgate to take some of the heavy lifting.

Out of all the skills that I’ve learned and crafted over the years, leadership is the ‘thing’ that I spend most time thinking about. I get such a buzz from seeing people thrive and flourish in work and the positive impact that has on their lives more broadly. I love it and I only want to get better at it, because I really believe that better leaders will absolutely lead to a better society for all of us. Just as Southgate states, we have a ‘responsibility to the wider community.’ Organisations don’t exist in bubbles, each sits within an ecosystem of people, systems and services that interconnect and impact on each other. I believe, as leaders, we must role model the attitudes, behaviours and values that will improve the lives of our team members and the communities that we serve.

Southgate uses a combination of ‘moments’ in which to anchor his message. The Euros, the Covid pandemic and the vile racism that we continue to see in the stands and on our social feeds. We can each find those moments, we can and must look up and outwards towards the social issues that impact us and use our power for good. The time for this deliberate political and powerful leadership is now.

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Doing lots of digital things at LEEDS 2023.

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Sarah Mace

Sarah Mace

Doing lots of digital things at LEEDS 2023.

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