Like most, I’m obsessed with football right now. But unlike others, I’m enjoying the game both on the pitch and off it. I’m referring to Gareth’s now-famous use of the craft I love – culture and behaviour change.
From Gary Lineker to Alex Scott to my personal hero Alan Shearer, everyone is suddenly talking about culture, and crediting England’s success to it.
Watching my friends and peers realise the magic an intentional culture can create is joyous – even if it is wildly surreal to hear Gary Neville waxing lyrical about role modelling theory.
But for many, the specifics of how Gareth is working his magic remains a mystery.
So as Sweet Caroline rang out across a euphoric England last night, I decided to decode Southgate’s use of behavioural psychology into five lessons everyday leaders could use.
1. Work to a higher purpose
Gareth constantly talks publicly about the team “knowing that they are playing for something bigger than themselves.” And from how often it’s mentioned in interviews – by both himself and players – it seems that this purpose is about creating happy moments and memories for the fans. How many times have you heard the question, “how do you feel about tonight’s victory/goal/game”, answered with, “we’re happy to have made a happy memory for the fans.”
By grounding the team in this common, altruistic, purpose, he can do two things. He can tap into the intrinsic motivation that comes with working towards a goal that benefits others. And he can use the higher purpose to manage the big personalities and egos that come with 24 young, professional football players. This is how Gareth has overcome the ‘team of individuals’ of the 90s and 00s.
2. Agree, then over-communicate your values
Can you guess the values of the England team? Think about the traits you hear most regularly from the team and the behaviours you see role modelled by Southgate himself. Over and over again we see and hear about humility, respect, resilience, teamwork and courage. Southgate’s first thank you, always being to the fans. There is notable respect for the other teams on the pitch. Resilience is mentioned as a positive trait and something to be proud of, often referencing the players’ own previous battles (Sterling with the media, Maguire with his court case) as reasons he chose the players.
The fact these values come up time and time again is no accident; they’re clearly something the team have created, agreed on and explicitly try to role model.
3. Publicly celebrate the right behaviours
When you see behaviours that represent your purpose and values, praise them publicly. This may seem obvious but is one of the most powerful tools in the behavioural psychology box.
Southgate has told us that the team picks out moments to celebrate in the dressing room after games. This is a ritual (another cultural tool) that sets the culture. One of those moments, he said, was in the Ukraine game when Mason Mount ran back to support the defenders with a key tackle. They chose to celebrate this, rather than the great play of the defenders because it wasn’t his job. He was going beyond his individual role to help out the team and most importantly, get the result for the fans.
4. Be a ‘servant leader’
If you haven’t heard about this concept yet, you will soon. The days of dictatorial leadership are over. The most successful leaders know that their job is to bring out the best in and raise up their team.
From the belief and encouragement Southgate has publicly given to Luke Shaw – who famously didn’t perform under the Mourinho’s aggressive leadership style – to the hug and word in the ear of a Jack Grealish obviously upset at not being played after Ukraine, Southgate knows he is only as good as his team is happy and confident.
5. Make hard, real decisions that back your values
We all know the danger of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Southgate does both. Let’s take the idea of a ‘team’, something he talks about a lot, repeatedly telling the media that every single player in the 24 man squad is important and always thanking “the boys who didn’t play today” after a win. This is great work in communicating the importance of that value.
But what is far more important is that he makes hard decisions to back up that value – always trying to give each player time on the pitch. England has the most rotated squad in the Euros. He’s played people nobody thought he would, to give them time on the field – and they’ve triumphed. He’s made hard, risky decisions; in doing so, he has earned the trust of his team, who have repaid him with performances pundits didn’t think were possible.
One more for luck…
A final point, which I’m keeping separate because in some ways it sits outside and above all the others: Southgate has made it fun. Be it setting up darts tournaments between the players and media, asking Kane to bring in Ed Sheeran to sing Football’s Coming Home (surely one of the weirdest images in football history), or releasing videos from the England camp of the squad messing around and playing tricks on each other, he’s brought playfulness and joy back to the game. One of our values at Kin&Co is Stay Playful. We believe that if you can get this right, everything else has a far greater chance of success.
Whatever happens in the final, Southgate has overcome huge milestones – penalty shootouts, beating Germany, back-to-back semi-finals and our first final since 1966.
And yes, it’s a good team – but England has always had star players. This is one of the reasons the fans resent the years of comparative failure on the world stage.
The difference this time with Southgate is what he has been able to do WITH those players. And he’s done that through culture. Thank you, Gareth, for putting our craft on the world stage.