5 things school leaders can learn from Gareth Southgate

England manager Gareth Southgate's leadership style has delivered success on the pitch - and it can work in schools, too

Katie Tomlinson

Euro 2020: What school leaders can learn from England manager Gareth Southgate

Expectations were low when Gareth Southgate was appointed as England manager. At the time his quietness was taken for weakness and his thoughtfulness and considered decisions labelled as lack of direction.

However, since 2016, he has taken the team to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and their first final in 55 years at Euro 2020 – even if it did end in agonising defeat.

If you cast your mind back five years to England’s dismal defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, who can honestly say Southgate’s tenure has been anything but successful?

How then has he been able to achieve what eluded so many managers before him? A lot has been made of his compassion, honesty and character – and rightly so.

School leadership: What teachers can learn from Gareth Southgate's success at Euro 2020

But there is astute leadership taking place – the kind that teachers at all levels can learn from to help improve their schools.

1. Be adaptable

Southgate changes his team selection regularly; choosing those he feels fit best for the match at hand. He also switches play systems, and places players in different positions according to need.

Being agile like this is not always easy, yet reaching a semi-final and then final shows it works. For schools such flexibility is also vital – proved clearly by the pandemic, when leaders and schools used to being flexible almost certainly adapted better to the new reality than those used to rigid ways of working.

And as the pandemic slows and school life returns to something that much more resembles "normal", school leaders must retain the adaptability and agility that was forced upon us previously.

This might mean being willing to adapt if the student voice calls for a new direction, responding and reacting to parent feedback, adapting, amending and even abandoning current plans or including newly discovered ideas.

Whatever it is, flexibility is key.

2. Create diversity and depth

Southgate selected a squad that is diverse and can be used in different ways. He can mix and match his centre-back pairs with his defenders, his wing backs with his wingers. This is a great lesson.

School leaders need to appoint with this strategy in mind; employing teachers who are not just specialists in one area but those who can be flexible or will add extra dimensions to the team.

This includes diversity in thinking, experience and backgrounds. School leaders also need to encourage expansion of diversity in those we already have on the team. That teacher who has been in Year 3 for four years? Encourage them to step out of their comfort zone and take on a new year group or area of responsibility.

Make the best of your team’s strengths and encourage them to step outside of their comfort zones and try new positions. Give people opportunities to learn more, experience more and give more.

3. Nurture young talent

With an average age of just 25, the England squad were second only to Turkey in terms of the youngest teams in the championship.

One of the benefits of this is that the squad do not carry the emotional baggage of previous disappointments and by the nature of their inexperience, they may also be more willing to try new plays, positions and follow advice.

School leaders should look to early career teachers to build a strong and solid team for the future. All the research evidence shows that teachers learn and improve the most in the first five years of their career.

As such, we should look to optimise learning at a time when early career teachers are keen to learn anything and everything about the craft of teaching and are at their most receptive to doing so.

4. Play the long game

Southgate once described his squad as "a work in progress" – the defeat on Sunday showed that and no doubt lessons will be learned.

School leaders need to take a similar stance and remain determined and be prepared to be in it for the "long game"; understanding that success will take time and it will not happen overnight. It comes with patience and commitment.

This is why three- or five-year development plans may be more productive than those of just one year.

5. Learn from other leadership models

Part of the criticism from fans prior to Southgate’s stewardship was that the England players had little pride in representing their country.

Southgate wanted to explore how he could reignite the passion to represent England again so turned to sources outside of football for advice, such as an adviser to the All Blacks, as part of his way of emphasising what it actually means to play for the Three Lions. Now England is a team beloved by its fans again.

This willingness to seek ideas from others beyond football is a lesson for educational leaders, too – to recognise that we don’t have all the answers and be willing to look outside of the sector and seek advice, support and guidance from other successful leaders.

There is much to learn from fields such as aviation, where the "black box" approach of learning from mistakes can be applied, and cycling, where the 1 per cent gains strategy can be utilised.

Staying within education models for leadership can be restraining and inhibiting, which is why Southgate and all he can teach us should be embraced.

Katie Tomlinson is head of primary at Sri KDU International School, Malaysia. She is on Twitter @TheLShipCoach

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