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Compassionate leadership, and how Gareth Southgate just made it mainstream

We all know that England didn’t make it all the way and that football, on its way home, is enjoying a well-deserved layover in France… For now.

The real win might well be for the role of compassionate leadership in teams.

Whilst compassionate leadership is no new thing, it has often been relegated into a lower category of leadership tools, for fear that it is too fluffy, too intangible and frankly, not macho enough. That just changed.

What Gareth Southgate seems to have proven is that a compassionate approach to leading a group need not be mutually exclusive from a steely determination and aggressive drive and vision, and that together it’s possible to deliver significantly better results than expected, even with a relatively inexperienced group of people. So, a bit of ying, and a bit of yang.

But let’s take a closer look at what compassionate leadership is.

What is compassionate leadership?

According to Roffey Park’s Compassion in the Workplace Model, there are 5 aspects to compassionate leadership, which cycle round and support each other:
Being alert to the needs of others >> Being non-judgmental >> Tolerating personal distress >> Being empathic >> Taking appropriate actions >> [and back round to] Being alert to the needs of others…

Photo of a group of people in a team

Alongside Gareth Southgate’s clear objectives for the team, the pundits have been happy this time to point to the out-and-out successes of the softer skillsets being deployed and distributed around the England squad.

Of these, being present and in the moment, being highly aware of the needs of the team – both on the pitch and off, being able to tolerate and hold a space for the distress of others have all been key.

Southgate has evidenced this in the way he purposefully shielded the team from external pressures. Sure, the overall objective was still the accomplishment of team goals (literally!), but it came from an empathy and understanding of what could affect the players mentally.

You can further argue that much of the resilience England have shown this time is down to their ability to let mistakes go and keep supporting each other. “The ability to move on” and “Stay in the moment” featured in a number of player interviews.

If all this seems to apply to leadership and management, it is because Southgate has borrowed from best-practice leadership theories in the first place. All that is happening here is that we’re able to observe in a neat footballing case study, how utter conviction with absolute compassion can lead to synergised outcomes. That’s naturally applicable to all organisations.

Further evidence of this hard/soft approach came from the team’s own observations.

Jordan Pickford spoke of the support from the team when he conceded goals, allowing him to stay centred, move quickly past it and to know that the rest of his team really did have his back.

In this interview with John Stones, the 24-year-old not only speaks of wishing to take on more responsibility and being a better leader, but then illustrates the point by signalling how he would empathise with a younger player, know what they were going through, and seek to support them better.

More of a leader than a manager

We’d also push for Gareth Southgate to be renamed the England leader, rather than the England manager.

This was most in evidence in the way that Southgate would quite frequently be sat back, watching the game calmly, and trusting the team. That’s empowerment and distributed leadership in practice. A confident leader can relax when the team have the emotional intelligence, empathy and mutual support for each other to collaborate fully as a team.

Compassionate leadership

In marked contrast, Russian team manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, could be seen screaming and shouting from the touchline (and demanding applause at a press conference!).

England didn’t require that kind of hammering. Everything they needed was already at the team level.

In our own organisations, do we see more Southgates than Cherchesovs, or is it the other way around?

Clear direction plus compassionate leadership grows great organisational culture

We think it’s fair to say the culture of the England squad has changed. It’s no longer about the individuals and their individual actions. It’s about what the collective can achieve when they support each other fully, and show compassion and humanity alongside their drive and determination.

As Harry Kane put it, in the midst of defeat against Croatia “We’ve restored some pride back into the shirt”.

Maybe, with a liberal amount of compassionate leadership to balance out the shouty, pushy approaches to organisational strategy, more corporate managers and leaders can also put some pride back into their shirts.

Compassionate Leadership Research Paper is available to download free of charge

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