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The beautiful gain
Print – Issue 168 | Article of the Week

Austin Swain
issue 168

 

Each month we will be sharing four, carefully-chosen articles from the Latest Issue of our flagship publication ‘theHRDIRECTOR’ which exemplify the high standards we strive to achieve. We hope you find this in-depth article of interest and decide to become one of our valued Subscribers.


Being perceived as strategic and ‘always in control’ may have been the holy grail for leaders of the past, but increasingly, they need to be inspiring coaches and communicators, not hiding behind statistics and data. Lest we lose sight of the obvious fact, people science is the science of people.

Article by Dr Austin Swain, Sales Director – Lane 4

This cannot be exemplified more fully than at the World Cup this year, where England team coach Gareth Southgate embodied authenticity and gave people a real sense that he is who he says he is. Even as his team were defeated in the semi-finals against Croatia, everything Southgate stood for held true, when he encouraged the England team to stay on the pitch and applaud the fans after the match. One of the reasons why some leaders struggle with change and transition is because they haven’t let go of who they think they’re supposed to be[1]. This is especially common amongst new leaders who focus on being recognised and accepted, learning generic behaviours they model on other leaders rather than acting in a way which is true to their identity. England Football team coach Gareth Southgate embodied authenticity and gave people a real sense that he is who he says he is. Even as his team were defeated in the semi-finals against Croatia, everything Southgate stood for held true when he encouraged the England team to stay on the pitch and applaud the fans after the match. Having a congruence between what you say and do, and how you behave whether you win or lose, goes a long way to establishing trust and authenticity as a leader. What’s more, in an industry infamous for its macho culture, Southgate challenged this by being open[2] about his own vulnerabilities – such as his missed penalty in the ’96 World Cup and the harrowing personal consequences that followed. Superhumans are not accessible to anyone and by dropping the façade of the perfect leader, the England manager let his team know that it is alright to make mistakes and express concerns about fallibilities, aspirations and deeper held beliefs.

Professor Graham Jones’s distinction between real and safe leaders kept coming to mind when watching England’s manager on the pitch. But it’s not only relevant in change scenarios. People always have a choice to opt for either ‘safe’ leadership or to step up to be a ‘real’ leader, and it was clear that Southgate made his choice. One of the main ways in which he embodied the characteristics of a ‘real’ leader for me was through his focus on being a good role model, rather than just conforming to existing procedures. After the penalty shootout against Columbia, Southgate’s first act was not to join his celebrating team but comfort Mateus Uribe, who had missed his penalty for Columbia. Far from shying away from the spotlight, real leaders also accept that they are highly visible. Southgate made his team more visible to the media and fans. In an unprecedented move[3], he chose to let every member of the squad talk to the media ahead of the tournament. And who didn’t feel a little more affinity for the England team when pictures of them racing each other in the pool on inflatable unicorns later emerged?

Being visible in a more meaningful way is an important but often tough lesson for leaders to learn. Executive team members often struggle to give up the plush corner office, and the status symbol it provides. But organisations now operate in a highly transparent world where internal and external behaviour is almost impossible to hide. The greater and more genuine access Southgate provided to himself and the team was reciprocated with an outpouring of warmth from the fans. It is not too much of a leap to suggest that society held up a mirror to Southgate and the England team’s behaviour, as it increasingly does for all organisations.  It’s no secret that historically, England players have not always enjoyed the experience of playing for their country. Who can blame them when previous World Cups have seen football legends like David Beckham publicly ridiculed, with the particularly sad and memorable case of his effigy being hung from a lamp post. These and countless other examples of players being booed on pitches up and down the country after playing for England, would have undoubtedly made it difficult for players to feel a sense of belonging to their national team. As belonging and acceptance are essential parts of any high performing culture, it’s not surprising that England’s results at past World Cups left many fans (and players) wanting. But, in Russia, we witnessed a change as the team clearly started not just enjoying, but taking pride in playing for England again. Danny Rose perfectly captured this shift in attitudes when he said[4] that ‘I cannot believe I am looking forward to putting an England shirt on again because a few years ago, I did not see that happening’. So why does a strong sense of belonging impact performance, in football and business alike? According to Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, relatedness – experiencing a sense of belonging by connecting with others – is one of the psychological needs that is key for motivation.

 “Superhumans are not accessible to anyone and by dropping the façade of the perfect leader, the England manager let his team know that it is alright to make mistakes and express concerns about fallibilities, aspirations and deeper held beliefs”

One of the key ways in which people create a sense of belonging and build trust is by developing personal and close connections. The fact that Rose felt comfortable opening up about his struggle[5] with mental health is a testament to the trust Southgate was able to create amongst his team. Having a set of common values, and consistently communicating these to people is an incredibly powerful way of building trust and belonging in a team, and it seems Southgate understood this well. As demonstrated by their last-minute win against Tunisia, the England team lived and breathed a ‘never give up’ mentality. No amount of technical skill in the world is going to make someone an effective leader if they are unable to relate to colleagues or build meaningful relationships with them. As the previously mentioned example of Southgate comforting Columbia’s Uribe after his penalty miss shows, England’s manager has high levels of social awareness and clearly senses what other people are feeling – irrespective of how well he knows them. He not only listened to people with full receptivity but also empathetically understood the thoughts and intentions of others, as demonstrated by his sending Fabian Delph[6] home from the tournament so that he could be present for the birth of his third child. The high levels of social intelligence displayed by Southgate will have undoubtedly helped him to create of an environment in which the team felt secure. Despite relentless criticism from the media, Southgate’s support[7] for Raheem Sterling allowed him to play a key role in Russia. In business, social intelligence is something that any leader can improve by, for example, focusing on carefully listening to and empathising with colleagues. They just need to prioritise it. There’s more to the World Cup than meets the eye. Southgate demonstrated that a team is only as strong as its leadership. The fact that he was able to take an England squad without world-renowned stars to the semi-finals is a valuable lesson for many leaders, namely that good leadership often trumps almost anything else, when it comes to performance. His focus on being a good role model, being socially aware and creating a sense of belonging amongst his team are just some of the key business takeaways that prove that a love of football is not the only reason to be glued to the screen during the World Cup.
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[1] McGrane, K. & Maitland, A. (2013). Navigating Leadership Transitions. Lane4 White Paper

[2] Taylor, D. (2018) ‘Gareth Southgate looks to lay ghost of Euro 96 penalty shootout to rest’, The Guardian, 29 Jun [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jun/29/gareth-southgate-lay-ghost-euro-96-penalty-shootout (Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[3] Izycky, I (2018) ‘Danny Rose’s openness about his mental ill health is commendable’, The Guardian, 9 Jun [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/09/danny-rose-mental-ill-health-england-sport (Accessed: 17 August 2018)

[4] Law, M (2018) ‘Danny Rose: ‘It was not fun playing for England in the past, now I can’t wait to pull on the shirt again’, The Telegraph, 12 Jul [Online]. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-cup/2018/07/12/danny-rose-not-fun-playing-england-past-now-cant-wait-pull-shirt/ (Accessed: 17 August 2018)

[5] Delaney, M (2018) ‘Danny Rose: England is my salvation from my battle with depression. I’m the luckiest player in the World Cup squad’, Independent, 6 Jun [Online]. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/world-cup/danny-rose-depression-england-world-cup-2018-gareth-southgate-family-a8386666.html (Accessed: 17 August 2018)

[6] Lawton, J (2018) ‘Fabian Delph given permission to FLY HOME as England prepare for Belgium match’, Daily Star, 28 Jun [Online]. Available at https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/712878/England-Fabian-Delph-World-Cup-fly-home-pregnant (Accessed: 17 August 2018)

[7] ‘Gareth Southgate defends Raheem Sterling ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final’, Mail Online, 9 Jul [Online]. Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-5935583/Gareth-Southgate-defends-Raheem-Sterling-ahead-England-s-World-Cup-semi-final.html (Accessed: 17 August 2018)


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