The last laugh: Leadership lessons from Gareth Southgate

This month Stephanie Davies asks: What we can learn about leadership from the beautiful game?

Gareth Southgate has been analysed and picked-over, from his history to his sartorial style. My favourite Southgate missive was this viral tweet from comedy writer, Madeleine Brettingham: “Gareth Southgate is the ultimate middle-aged crush. I just want him to drive me to a colonoscopy appointment then sit outside eating a scotch egg in dignified silence.” What else does a woman want in a partner?

The ‘sitting outside’ is very important, by the way. My husband once accompanied me to a medical appointment during which I underwent a ‘minor invasive exploratory procedure’. You can use your imagination to work out what that was.

He sat through the whole thing, watching my insides on the screen while making awkward small talk with the doctor. He was traumatised and didn’t speak all the way home, apart from to complain that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. Something tells me Gareth would have handled it better.

Looking back on the Euros, the England team’s achievements are remarkable and illustrate how positivity and belief can galvanise people and lead to results.

Gareth isn’t a traditional football manager. He doesn’t dish out hairdryers like Fergie did. He hasn’t got the cocky swagger of Mourinho, who was terminated from his last four jobs, so maybe that confidence is a little misplaced. Just saying.

Gareth understands the value of thinking differently and trying new things

Gareth is a manager for the 2020s. The Millennials love him. He leads with compassionate consensus. He embraces inclusivity and diversity. He earns respect, he doesn’t demand it. He doesn’t listen to win, he listens then wins. And only Top Cat looks better in a waistcoat.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gareth’s management strategy is his willingness to bring in views and voices from outside football. It is human nature to want to surround ourselves with people who look and think like we do.

Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes. But that is how echo chambers are created. Gareth understands this and rather than surround himself with people who all know the same stuff and sing from the same hymn sheet, he’s followed a different route and is open to new ideas and outlooks.

This strategic diversity is informed by the FA Technical Advisory Board, which was set up in 2016 to solve the problem of England’s decade’s long under-performance. Instead of filling the board with the same old footballing faces, its unpaid volunteer members included a cycling coach, a college commander at the Sandhurst Military Academy and a tech entrepreneur.

Prior to the project, pushing change through the FA had been extremely difficult, one of the reasons why former chairman, Greg Dyke, decided to step down.

Echo chambers can have profound consequences for organisations. One of the reasons given for the failure of the CIA to track the growing threat of Al Qaeda and spot the 9/11 terror attacks was its internal structure, which consisted almost entirely of white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans who all thought the same and had the same world viewpoint.

After the attacks the CIA and other intelligence services, including our own here in the UK, started to diversify.

Echo chambers are intrinsically self-limiting. Diversity, on the other hand, affords organisations creative bandwidth. This is why I recently created a Rebel Boardroom at my own company, Laughology. It consists of a group of wonderful people from different backgrounds who help us think differently and recognise our limiting behaviours and patterns.

We encourage them to tell us when we are being fixed. Sometimes it is hard to hear criticism, even when its constructive. But without it we continue the same patterns and make the same mistakes.

Gareth understands the value of thinking differently and trying new things. It is why he was open to playing players out of position and taking bold decisions. It makes him a tactical genius with imagination and many different waistcoats.


About the author

Stephanie Davies is the founder of Laughology.


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