In a world where inspirational leaders are in short supply, Gareth Southgate stands out like a beacon. I’ve thought about so many of his qualities over past weeks, but in particular I want to talk about his combination of “ego strength” and humility, curiosity and depth of thought. This is an unusual and deeply powerful combination for building sustained high performance in teams and organisations, and it’s something you can develop in your own leadership.
Everyone will be aware of leaders that are controlling, dominant and rigid, much more interested in their own thoughts and opinions than anyone else’s, they may even think of themselves as ‘special’. This is called egotism, where the individual may actually be unconfident on some level, and always looking to buttress themselves by the approval or subservience of others.
Ego strength, not egotism
Let’s not confuse being egotistical with ego strength. Ego strength is a form of confidence that can be defined as an individual’s ability “to maintain their identity and sense of self in the face of pain, distress, and conflict.”1 Ego strength requires the ability to learn from your mistakes and successes without blaming others, or soaking up all the praise. After England’s match against Scotland, when Harry Kane was criticised and commentators described him as ‘leggy’ and off the pace, Southgate was unequivocal and authoritative, “Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world and we’ve built our plans around him.”
And after the turmoil and profound disappointment of the final
“In terms of penalties, it is my call, and it totally rests with me.” said Southgate of the penalty misses.
“I decided on the penalty-takers based on what they have done in training.”
“Nobody is on their own. We have won together as a team and it is on all of us together to not be able to win this game.”
Ego strength requires the ability to manage emotions and impulses, and stay true to purpose. It’s vital for leaders, especially in high stress situations, where there are no obvious right answers, where the consequences of decisions are high, where many people are dependent on you making a call. And when things go wrong, the temptation to blame will be high, but the cost of that blame-game to team functioning will be higher.
The power of a purpose that really connects
One of Southgate’s main strategies has been to redefine the team’s purpose, what it means to represent England, what it means to belong to this team. He’s framed this as a positive opportunity to make the country proud, not a burden to be feared. This links directly to performance, because the players have been intimately involved in developing their team values and identity, and they then share these values, (such as equality and social justice) which translates into caring deeply for and trusting each other. This frees them to perform at their best.
What you can do
As a leader, you can learn from Gareth Southgate by asking yourself
- How well have I led the team to explore our purpose?
- How motivational and unifying is this purpose for the team?
- Under stress, when (how) does my ego strength get diminished?
And to support the recovery and development of your ego strength
- Every day reflect on what you have done well, what you have learnt, and want to do differently next time.
- Spend time with people that are grounded, and will both support and challenge
- Ensure you have enough rest and sleep