- Sports managers often pay with their jobs when their teams lose on the world stage, such as during the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
- An exception is Gareth Southgate, who appears to still have England's confidence after multiple team losses.
- The reason may lie in these three skills that successful team leaders often share.
While other managers have paid with their jobs for their nation's early exit from the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, still seems largely to have his nation’s confidence. Why?
I argue that the answer lies in three things successful leaders do, each of which builds people’s confidence in their ability to deliver over the long term.
A Double Anomaly
In July 2021, soccer pundit and ex-England and Manchester United player, Gary Neville praised England's manager Gareth Southgate, as reported in The Daily Mail:
"The standard of the leaders in the past couple of years in this country has been poor but look at that man there... he’s everything a leader should be: respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate."
England had just beaten Denmark to reach the Euro 2020 final (which had been postponed by a year due to the pandemic). But Neville’s appreciation of Southgate didn't appear to be dependent on that singular achievement or, indeed, on any particular result. He and others continued to back the England manager long after England’s defeat to Italy in that final and a subsequent run of disappointing results in the Nations’ League.
In commentary this week, Neville restated his confidence in Southgate after England lost 1-2 to France in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup, and the England manager told reporters he would “need time” to decide whether or not to stay on until the end of his contract in 2024. As Neville put it:
"I would love Gareth to stay on for another two years… England’s in a pretty good place, let’s be clear about that… We’ve gone out of tournaments in the last 25 years in disgrace, where you’ve thought: ‘What’s the future?’ We’ve got a great future here, and he’s been a big part of that."
Not everyone in England shares Neville’s positive view of Southgate. Indeed, in one newspaper poll this week, a slender majority called for him to resign. However, among professionals—from Football Association officials, to pundits, to former players, to members of the current England squad—the consensus seems to be that he should stay.
Such confidence in a leader who has failed to deliver is rare. In Southgate's case, I argue that it’s a double anomaly. On their third Prime Minister this year, the English of 2022 aren’t particularly patient when it comes to leaders who disappoint. Meanwhile, other soccer heavyweights, such as Brazil, Belgium, and Spain, have dispensed with their FIFA World Cup 2022 managers after unexpected defeats saw their national teams knocked out early from the competition.
So, why do so many people in England seemingly want Southgate to stay? And why isn’t a run of disappointing results leaving more of a dent in his reputation?
1. Leaders develop talent.
In my view, Southgate is unwavering in his focus on what he considers to be his most important task: to develop individual and collective talent. Rugby and athletics performance coach Owen Eastwood is one of many experts whom Southgate has recruited from other sports to develop the England squad. In a recent interview, Eastwood underlined Southgate’s focus on talent development:
"One of the things about Gareth’s leadership is he genuinely sees it as a players’ game. He is there to facilitate them achieving what their potential might be. It’s not about him. He’s not the hero of it—the players are the heroes of it."
Developing talent isn’t easy. It requires sensitivity to individual needs while avoiding favoritism, as well as detailed attention both to long-term goals and short-term challenges. Often, it entails tough decisions about when established team members need to be moved aside to make way for emerging talent. Southgate has excelled at this, managing the delicate task of moving on aging superstars like Wayne Rooney to bring in outstanding players in their teens and early 20s, such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, and Bokayo Saka.
2. Leaders build culture.
England’s 2022 squad has a deep bench, and competition for places in the starting 11 is fierce. However, in terms of individual talent, it is probably not England’s greatest. Many award that distinction to the “golden generation” of the early 2000s—which included the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Steven Gerrard.
Members of the golden generation never quite managed to gel as a national squad. Competition between individuals and cliques of Premier League teammates dominated. For example, squad members from Manchester United recall keeping their distance from those from Chelsea and Liverpool, and vice versa.
In 2022, the situation couldn’t be more different. Southgate has created a culture of national pride and esprit de corps that places the collective endeavor and achievement of the whole group above any individual or sub-group of players.
This is no accident. It’s due to deliberate and consistent communication, individual management, and the institution of new rituals. Learning from practices in other sports and countries, players are now given a “legacy number” based on the date of their first inclusion in the national team. This communicates to each player that they have a unique place in English footballing history and makes them feel like part of a chain that includes the childhood heroes who first inspired them to play.
Similarly, in the run-up to recent major tournaments, English celebrities, such as Ed Sheeran and Robbie Williams, have been brought in to relax and inspire the squad on the eve of their opening game. The sense of togetherness created by such rituals is almost the polar opposite of the tense atmosphere that reportedly dominated under more gruff and distant England managers, such as Fabio Capello.
3. Leaders provide perspective.
One of Southgate’s defining characteristics as a leader is his quiet confidence and his ability to stay calm in the face of extreme pressure. He doesn’t appear to hold himself in the manner of a self-assured alpha male. Actually, he seems kind of nerdy. But he has a capacity not only to filter out the noise of criticism but also, gently and insistently, to redirect journalists’ attention to what matters most.
For example, asked after England’s defeat to France about Harry Kane’s uncharacteristic penalty miss, Southgate responded:
"We win and we lose as a team… He's been incredible for us, and so reliable... We wouldn’t be here but for the number of goals he's scored for us."
More importantly, he knows when to put an individual’s needs above those of the team. When Raheem Sterling requested to leave Qatar to be with his family following an armed break-in to his London home, Southgate noted simply:
"That is a simple decision for me—I have to support the player… Of course I want the best players available... but as a manager you have to recognize that there are certain moments in people’s lives that are more important than that."
A Triple Cord
Like individual England players under Southgate’s coaching, these leadership behaviors are mutually reinforcing. As noted in Ecclesiastes 4:12, “A cord of three strands is not readily broken.” Leaders seeking to emulate Southgate’s staying power would do well to consider his three-stranded focus on talent development, culture and perspective.
On leadership and talent development: Debebe, G. (2017). Authentic leadership and talent development: Fulfilling individual potential in sociocultural context. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 19(4), 420-438.
On leadership and culture-building: Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational leadership and organizational culture. Public Administration Quarterly, 17(1), 112-121.
On leadership and perspective-giving: Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, 78(2), 4-19.
"'He's everything a leader should be - respectful, humble, he tells the truth': Gary Neville hails Gareth Southgate for guiding England into their first ever Euros final... and Ian Wright admits he's been 'dreaming of this day forever.'" Daily Mail Online. July 8 2021.
"Gary Neville sends message to Gareth Southgate over his England future." Metro. December 11 2022.
"'I need time' - Southgate gives update on England future following Three Lions' World Cup exit." Goal. December 11 2022.
"'Change is needed' in England's squad as Gareth Southgate called on to resign – poll." Express. December 14 2022.
"'We are incredibly proud' - FA throws support behind Southgate despite England's World Cup exit." Goal. December 11 2022.
"World Cup 2022: Alan Shearer says England have bright future ahead after France quarter-final defeat." BBC Sport. December 12 2022.
"Harry Maguire convinced ‘amazing’ Gareth Southgate still right boss for England." Welwyn Hatfield Times. December 11 2022.
"‘There are moments where family becomes most important': Gareth Southgate backs Raheem Sterling's decision to leave England camp after burglary at his Surrey home... but doubts Three Lions star will be ready to start France quarter final." Daily Mail Online. December 9 2022.