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Diversity leadership – why Gareth Southgate has played a blinder

16 June 2021

There are instructive lessons for business leaders and diversity managers in the way the England manager has conducted himself in the run-up to and early stages of the European football championship.

What do diversity champions and footballers have in common? A fear of relegation. (Boom boom!)

Here’s another one, which might be slightly easier… What special factor can make a compelling difference in avoiding that chance of relegation? The answer is great leadership.

We’ve recently seen this play out in glorious technicolour in the context of the (delayed) UEFA 2020 European Championship. Gareth Southgate, manager of the England men’s football team, has both spoken to the media and written a heartfelt letter to the country’s football fans, defending the team’s decision to take the knee before their matches at the Euros.

At England’s first game in the tournament against Croatia, the gesture was momentary but nonetheless spoke volumes. Southgate knew that some disagreed with taking the knee, which had been made clear by booing in the stands at the warm-up game against Romania and Austria. Yet the team’s response was steady and calm: they knew there could be an adverse reaction but were determined to ignore it and move forward.

Some fans did boo before the Croatia match, although it was largely drowned out by the cheers of other fans. Whether those cheering were doing so in support of their team, the manager or the cause of equality is a moot point. But whatever the reason, Southgate and his team have taken a positive step in terms of the diversity and inclusion agenda from which there’s much that leaders across all workplaces can learn. 

First, Southgate has not skirted around or shied away from the reason why the team is taking the knee. While he has had to be cautious about being seen to take a political position, football is an industry in which racism is often quite public - whether on the pitch or through targeting of players on social media. His stance of “showing solidarity with teammates and black people in society” is therefore plainly justified. Yet it is difficult to understand why any leader in any workplace would not be able make the same justification. While they may not see or read the same kind of racist taunts, jibes or attacks on their workers as Southgate, we have heard so much over the past year from people of an ethnic minority talk about their own experiences of being othered. Protection and freedom from such offensive behaviours should not be a controversial matter in any workplace. 

Secondly, Southgate has been clear in media interviews that he accepts his role and responsibility to lead from the front. Not only that, he has talked about how other leaders need to do the same, suggesting that those in positions of power and seniority across all industries and businesses must be the ones to make the decisions that will make the difference. Southgate realises that the priority for many people is for England to win the Euros, but that hasn’t prevented him talking about something important to his players, himself and society at large. All leaders can choose to make the time to promote diversity and inclusion.

Thirdly, Southgate uses inclusive language when talking about the whole team and his staff, consistently using the pronoun “we”: “We are an England national team”, “We are making that stand”. He has clearly had frank conversations with the players and encouraged them to discuss the issues among themselves, saying that this is how he expects them to learn. This is the kind of environment that motivates workers to have honest dialogues about their experiences at work and elsewhere, helping those who might not realise the ubiquity of microaggressions to gain a better understanding.

In his letter to football fans, Southgate wrote: “It might not feel like it at times, but it’s true. The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race have gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone.” There’s a good deal of truth in this. Just pay attention to the next set of television commercials you watch, in which you’ll see few adverts that don’t include someone from an ethnic minority. People with visible disabilities and same-sex couples are also far more mainstream in the media nowadays. And these are the types of steps that we need to see.

But rather like the manager of a mid-league team trusting on fortune to keep them up, there will be those who wonder whether the diversity and inclusion agenda is merely a fad that will eventually have its day and be relegated… As Gareth Southgate is showing, true leaders can make a stand and seek to ensure this doesn’t happen.  

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