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What Gareth Southgate can teach us about leading

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(This post can is also available in the TES here.)

If the World Cup is not your thing, then look away now. But if you have a passing interest in leadership and how the manager of England can teach us a thing or two about the art, then read on.

On the eve of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – Wednesday 4th July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.

Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 80’s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.

As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspirals all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.

It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.

Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.

And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.

You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.

Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.

The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.

But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.

Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:

Class is permanent

The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.

He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).

Know thyself

It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.

I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.

He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: ‘I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.’ He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.

Leading down the middle

Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands and feet.

The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent back bone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health and well-being.

OST

Successful leaders have a strong sense of Objective, Strategy, Tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no-one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.

With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.

When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.

Legacy

What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at Under-21s, Kane, Dier and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.

The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The Euros in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.

The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.

At long last we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the three lions seem to mean something.

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Go, tell it on the mountain!

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It can’t have escaped your notice that earlier this week it was World Storytelling Day. As a leader, the only story you need to be telling is the one about you – who you are, what you stand for and why your school is the best party in town.

Telling powerful stories about the culture you have created as a headteacher is what makes you stand out as a truly great leader. Storytelling helps the best leaders nail their colours to the mast for all to see by bringing their values to life through metaphor and motto. Leaders that harness this power create a ‘legend’, a lasting legacy that lives on long after they’ve gone.

As with all good stories, it’s the way you tell them that matters. Let’s face it, as teachers, we all know how powerful a good story can be to a captivated audience. Telling stories to children is what we do really well.

As leaders, we need to learn how to translate this skill to adults. The principles aren’t really that much different. (Other than the small fact that those that are listening can just get up and leave.)

The best heads know that a compelling story well-told creates cultural glue. It’s about forming emotive connections that bind people together with a common language and sense of purpose. It’s what motivates people and gets them out of bed in the morning.

So important is the art of storytelling, that in James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, he argues that leaders even need to go so far as to invent their own language. In so doing, this then allows them to “sing the world into existence” because they’ve created their own vocabulary.

Seth Godin suggests a different art-form (in his book, ‘Tribes: We need you to lead us’). Rather than sing or tell stories, we must instead get our brushes out and ‘paint a picture of the future’ on our blank canvas.

To ensure your narrative comes to life, your values and beliefs become the star of the story – centre-stage characters that drive the plot. You need to embellish and develop people’s understanding of what drives these key characters; how they got there, where they came from and where they are going.

As with all good books, we need to fall in love with the people that are in them. If we don’t care much for the main characters and can’t associate ourselves with them, we don’t care much for the story. The same goes with your core ideology – your vision, values and reason for being.

As James Kerr says:

“Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.”

I believe that the best leaders all share a number of traits that make them become master storytellers. You need to try and exhibit them often, and as with anything worth doing well, you need to practise them often too. These character traits include: energising, discovering, imagining, celebrating, failing, questioning and dismantling. (You can read more about them in my book).

What is crucial as a leader is that you model these frequently, whilst at the same time giving out permissions to others to do the same.

For example, staff need to know that they have permission (or not) to fail often, or question often. They need to know the extent to which they can dismantle what’s not working in their classroom or the degree to which they can discover (and try out) new things without coming to you first.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, by giving these permissions out openly to all and as soon as you can, as a leader you are unwittingly defining the culture of the school without anyone necessarily knowing it.

In a recent article in The New York Times, research showed that when transforming challenging schools in Chicago, those traits mentioned above are commonplace. Although not identical to the ones I suggest, they certainly aren’t dissimilar:

“When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits that they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.”

What’s really interesting is that the key to embedding systemic change is not to do with what you do financially, structurally or administratively. It’s not about having the best ideas or always being right or being the most clever. Instead, it’s about how you engage, motivate and galvanise the people around you.

It’s about how well you tell your story.

“We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.”

Let’s be crystal clear about this. The stories that you tell about the culture that you’ve created start and end with you. It’s your name above the door: You set the weather. The team that you create are only as good as the culture that allows them to thrive (or not).

The New York Times sum it up perfectly:

“Principals set the culture by their very behaviour – the message is the person.”

Those seven traits mentioned above aren’t the complete picture. There is an eighth and it’s the one that I think is most important when creating a culture built to last: Articulating.

Being able to articulate your vision effectively can be a daunting and challenging prospect, whether it be in the form of a story, painting or song. It’s not good enough simply to tell or instruct people. Sending out an email, death by PowerPoint or a glossy laminated infographic won’t engage anyone.

I always remember a senior leader whom I first worked with as a new head. She couldn’t see why things weren’t being done. “I’ve sent them all a group email dozens of time,” she’d say. “I’ve told them in briefing over and over again. I don’t get what bit of it they don’t understand!” She really was getting very exasperated.

The answer of course was in the messaging, the storytelling. There was no connection, no buy-in and therefore a complete lack of emotional attachment from the staff. Shouting louder and stamping your feet simply won’t wash.

The wisest leaders understand then that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. As well as being visceral in their storytelling, they are also marketing and communication experts. They do this often, not by accident, but methodically and persistently.

They are highly proactive at continually seeking openings to tell their story at every opportunity, often by stealth, to anyone prepared (and sometimes not) to listen.

The best leaders sit people down and empower them and build consensus by bringing their vision to life in a way that is compelling and entirely believable. They are dogged and unwavering in equal measure.

Their story becomes their mantra.

And always remember this: If you don’t tell the story, who will? Seize the moment.

For no other reason then than it being international storytelling week, to close, here is one of my favourite stories about the importance of leadership, one that you might like to tell any budding future leader. Just promise me you won’t send them a memo.

It’s called ‘The Feast’ and it goes like this:

After yet another disastrous project that resulted in higher taxes and more hardship imposed on the people, a wise man let it be known at court that he was a master chef. One day he announced a feast at which he would prepare the most delicious new food. The King and all of his advisers were invited and couldn’t wait to attend.

When the various dignitaries arrived, full of anticipation, the food was presented in great style. But it proved to be disgusting.

“What is this abominable, poisonous mess you are asking us to eat?” cried the outraged guests. “You’re making us all sick!”

“This is my latest recipe,” explained the chef. “I made it up as I went along, putting in at random anything that came to hand without any rhyme or reason. It seemed like a good idea.”

“That’s absurd!” the King and all his advisors shouted at once. “That’s no way to prepare a meal.”

“I agree,” said the wise one before making a hasty exit. “But I thought it would be interesting, nonetheless, to try out a recipe based on your way of doing things.”