What Gareth Southgate can Teach us about Authentic Leadership

It is almost a cliché to admire Gareth Southgate’s leadership of the England football team.  The Daily Telegraph have praised his “integrity” and “quiet dignity”.  The BBC among many others praised his “compassion” for consoling Colombia’s, Uribe, who missed his penalty in the last 16 game and put England through to the quarter finals. These are not normally words one associates with football managers, or perhaps even managers generally!  So what takes us out of the realm of mere people management and into the bask of great leadership?

‘Leadership’ means different things in different cultures.  It can mean, religious leadership (Ghandi, Pope John Paul II), or small-scale community leadership, or large-scale campaigning leadership (Lillian Bilocca, Martin Luther King).  More obviously, it can mean political leadership (Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela).  While I am generally focussing on leadership in the workplaces of the western world, it seems that most effective leaders share similar traits which can be modelled and adapted.

Why is Inauthentic Leadership a Problem?

Great leaders are always authentic.  You may not know that they are being authentic, but you always know when they are not.  Prime Minister Theresa May has been heavily criticised since she took office for seeming cold and unemotional.  This is highlighted by the perceived contrast with opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s, openness and agreeableness.  Mrs May’s demeanour is seen by her detractors as a sign that she is not authentic, and that she is wearing a ‘game face’ for the public.  This suggests that she is not being her true self and arguably makes it difficult to like and trust her.  (In fairness to Mrs May, she is currently trying to manage a very difficult exit from the EU which, it is well known, she did not vote for.)

Great leaders win their followers over with their strength of character and open communication.  That is why being a good speaker and communicator is so important.  Former US presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and UK PM Tony Blair at this peak were masters of this. They each found it easy to express a public sincerity that Mrs May finds difficult.  Though not strictly a leader, the late Princess Diana was able to communicate warmth and openness through her facial expressions and body language without speaking.

Former England football captain, style icon, global football ambassador, and one-time candidate for a knighthood, David Beckham, fell victim to his personal emails being made public.  The documents seemed to display attitudes at odds with his public persona.  Beckham’s public image has since taken a dip.  The lesson therefore is that people do not like to feel like they are being ‘played’.  A leader may have the ability to tell people what to do, but they should never try to coerce, order, or manipulate a follower into what they should be thinking or doing.

Showing Vulnerability

One of history’s most famous speeches is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” oratory.:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”

The line is powerful because it is so personal.  Dr King is not talking about African-American people generally, he is clearly talking about his own children and, as a father, his hopes and dreams for them.  He is showing himself to be a parent like any other and not a great and distanced leader of a movement.  He is expressing vulnerability.

Showing vulnerability is probably the most challenging part of authentic leadership.  It is the diametric opposite of what the western corporate workplace is traditionally all about!  Remember Gordon Gekko’s advice, “If you need a friend, get a dog”, meaning he didn’t have any friends at work and accepted that people wouldn’t always appreciate his way of doing things.  At around the same time, in the UK, Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher – still a divisive character in respect of her leadership legacy – was nicknamed the Iron Lady for what were then perceived as her admirable qualities of inflexibility and dogmatism.

The workplace has changed since 1980s in favour of a much more conciliatory form of leadership.  Leaders are now expected to admit that they do not have all the answers, and to express occasional doubt or uncertainty.

One of the first things Gareth Southgate allegedly did to win the hearts and minds of his England squad was to show them footage of his missing a penalty in the shoot-out between England and Germany in the 1996 European Cup challenge.  It cost England the tournament and he was widely derided in the UK media for weeks afterwards.  By doing this, Southgate was showing his squad that he knew and accepted that people made mistakes, and that he himself wasn’t perfect.  Southgate has won over hostile journalists by demonstrating open and conciliatory behaviour, and encouraged his players to display humility and professionalism both when winning and losing.

Leading by Example

To be a great leader we need to bring our whole self to the table.  We need to be seen to believe what we are asking people to do, and to – within reason – express what we believe in, even when it isn’t always going to be well received.  It is good to show some vulnerability and remind people that we’re only human too.

Authentic leadership is something which can be used everyday in both inside and outside of work.  In a nutshell, it is about being true to oneself and leading by example so people follow you because they want to, not just because they are paid to.

Do you agree with this?  Is there such a thing as being too authentic?  Should a leader retain an aura of mystique to set them apart from their followers?




York, UK

Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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