We need more Southgate in the commercial world

Cast your mind back just three weeks to a night in Moscow. England had fallen to Croatia in the World Cup semi finals and Gareth Southgate, after 70 minutes of media obligations, reemerged onto Moscow’s Luzhniki field to thank the fans that were still chanting his name.

For me, it was the tournament’s most poignant moment: a man went up the tunnel a World Cup loser, yet came back a leader.

Gareth Southgate, who got the job by accident, rallied a team that was young and sans megastar power. His team tussled, they fought, they shone, they persevered. They scrapped their way to England’s best World Cup showing in a generation. 

And for the first time in a long time, a nation actually believed.

Since England’s exit we’ve seen stations renamed and we’ve gone dotty for waistcoats. But deeper in Gareth Southgate’s wardrobe is his leadership style – and that’s the piece the commercial world needs to try on.

Southgate’s not a shouter, a bully, a dominator – he’s a leader. Substance and integrity, decency, compassion, loyalty and foresight. Deep-rooted ideals help him navigate challenges. He glued together a team, instilled belief and stuck with his men.

And wouldn’t you know, they gave it their all.

Southgate has consistently led by conviction and example since he was parachuted into his first managerial job. A Twitter story published by BBC sports journalist Jake Humphrey paints a picture of the artist as a young man: a leader with beliefs and a penchant for the bigger picture.

Recounting an experience from a decade ago. Humphrey, then an up-and-comer, was working with the CBBC Newsround team. Although a solid launchpad for his own career, Humphrey was well-used to being fobbed off by Premier League reps. For them, kids’ news wasn’t a priority.

Managers would, wrote Humphrey, keep him waiting: they’d cancel last-minute; they’d phone it all in. Access was tough and interviews formulaic.

But Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate was different. Southgate knew Jake’s name, welcomed him warmly on arrival and gave him unbridled access to training and talent. He stopped a Boro training session mid-flow and assembled his players to brief them on how crucial the Newsround spot was. Southgate saw a platform for him and Boro to reach and engage the next generation of football fans; perhaps the group comprising much of England’s base circa 2018.

He showed longsightedness. And that’s a core tenet of leadership.

A recent Forbes magazine list of desirable leadership traits threw up words like loyalty and integrity again and again.

Yes, we’re in an era of rapid job change and grass-is-greener syndrome – and there’s a perception that loyalty doesn’t go far these days.

But it’s a two-way street.

Over the last year, someone very close to me has been taken apart owing to a lack of good leadership in their organisation. My best friend – he served his company man and boy. To use a football metaphor, he came through the under 18s, starred in the under 21s and became a key playmaker in the national side. He is universally loved by 99.9% and if golden boots were being given out for inspired, motivated people and happy clients he’d have quite the collection.

But this individual was caught up in a hyper political, headline news situation. He needed bravery and support from the employer to whom he gave the same.

Imagine wanting your company to stand tall and support you in your hour of need. And then imagine that they didn’t.

For the employer, it was easier to throw their loyal servant under the bus than to back their man. It was easier to recast him as a lightening rod, absorbing the shockwaves and static flying towards the company as passions raged.

In the World Cup groups, when Jordan Pickford had a wobble or two, criticism came pouring in from pundits. But Southgate stood firm and kept the young Everton stopper between the sticks. He wound up, arguably, England’s player of the tournament.

I’m speculating, but it felt like this time round, the England team was playing for their manager, their shirt and their fans. Their company. I’m not sure we told the same tale of England in days gone by.

We don’t see enough Southgate in the commercial world. Too often I see leaders who’d rather be feared than trusted. I see managers who plan short and not long. I see executives without the spine to ride the waves of fortune and eschew knee-jerk reactions.

In 2018, employees that rack up years with one company are an exception. Commercial culture now is racked by attrition, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s all too easy and convenient to call out an impatient workforce or a lack of stickability, but the role of the leader is crucial.

Good leaders do all they can to keep their team and keep them motivated: rewarding ideas and effort and sticking by their personnel when the ship hits troubled waters.

Organisations have a huge duty of care towards their players, from the first XI to their junior teams. Loyalty is a precedent, a constant. When it’s obvious in an organisation’s fabric it makes for a tighter team unit. Nurture that and you have the recipe for progress. Don’t and watch discontentedness, fear and distrust become a tangible, odorous mist.

Leadership is a 360 degree concept. Knowing when to talk; knowing when to listen. Planning long and responding (not reacting) short. Integrity, humility, dignity – modern leadership is the sum of new parts. Emulating Southgate is a good place to start: loyalty to your troops, long-term thinking, compassion, empathy and trust. Those are ingredients for longer-term success.

Will Southgate’s men be back, older, wiser, bigger and better for the Euros in two years time? I’d put a hefty wager on it.

In a business world where you can choose to be anything. Be like Gareth.