Gareth Southgate could yet become the most successful ever manager of the men’s English football team. With a record so far of 39 wins and 9 draws from his 58 games in charge, he ranks higher than almost all of his predecessors.
All that’s really missing in his record is a major tournament win – with only Sir Alf Ramsey, in 1966, having gone one better than Southgate’s semi-final appearance in the 2018 World Cup.
And while some fans remain critical, Southgate’s players appear to be genuine and unanimous in their support. Midfielder Phil Foden, who at 21 is a three time Premier League winner with Manchester City and an England under-17s World Cup winner in 2017 has said of his national team boss:
He is a great coach – working with him every day you get to see what he is like. He always has the players’ backs and I believe that his tactics are great so all these negative people don’t know what they are talking about.
Southgate has enjoyed similar backing from other players since 2016, when he won two and drew two of his four games in temporary charge. And the English Football Association, aware of his previous work with the England under-21s, appeared to listen to (and agree with) the players, awarding Southgate a four year contract. This was later extended to the next FIFA World Cup in 2022, making him one of England’s longest serving managers and one of the longest serving in world football.
Southgate himself has said his coaching style focuses on the person before the footballer, involves regular communication, listening more than speaking, and empowering his players to make key decisions. As such, his approach appears to be in line with “empowering coaching”, a concept developed by motivation expert Joan Duda.
Based on many years of research, empowering coaching involves a sharing of control between a leader and their team. It encourages both individual and team thinking, personal responsibility, freedom to choose, two-way communication, and a focus on self improvement.
Get most of these things right, the theory goes, and the results will look after themselves. In both sport and business a key focus is a happier, more autonomous and better motivated workforce. At the time of writing, it certainly seems to be working for Southgate.
Empowering coaching appears to share similarities with “transformational leadership”, a leadership style which allows team members to work with their leader or manager to help to achieve goals, and requires personal qualities from the leader such as care, trust and support. Southgate’s open letter to fans including a call for togetherness ahead of the Euro 2020 tournament certainly gives the impression that this is his style.
Such an approach appears to be in stark contrast to some extremely successful football managers of recent decades including Sir Alex Ferguson and the self-proclaimed “special one”, Jose Mourinho. Ferguson famously kicked a stray boot in the Manchester United changing room following an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal that left David Beckham needing stitches above his eye. He was also well known for his “hairdryer” treatment, which involved shouting in player’s faces if they were deemed to be under performing.
Mourinho was perhaps a little more subtle in demonstrating his power, accused of ridiculing players in the media or forcing them to train with the reserves or junior sides, as was reportedly the case with Luke Shaw, now an England regular.
But the world is a different place in 2021, and approaches to leadership and management have moved on. The days of bawling football managers and business leaders publicly and openly shouting down their players or employees may be becoming a thing of the past.
Whether Southgate’s more modern approach leads to a major tournament trophy for England remains to be seen of course. But his management style, driven by growing knowledge in motivation and performance, will hopefully become the norm – not just in football, but in other sports and across the world of work. And that would count as a very big win indeed.
Pete Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Sport Coaching, Nottingham Trent University
This article was first published on The Conversation.
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