Lessons in Leadership from 2018

At the start of a new year it can be useful to reflect on the insights we’ve gained from the preceding one.  The topic of leadership is rarely far from the headlines and given that it was a key theme of last year and looks likely to remain so in 2019, we thought it could be useful to consider how a few of 2018’s leaders from the worlds of football and politics have demonstrated (or not!) some key leadership attributes.

Authenticity – Gareth Southgate, England Football Manager

Authentic leaders are self-aware individuals who work within their own moral principles and who are willing to acknowledge their weaknesses. They are open and honest, which promotes trust.

Several lessons can be learned from Southgate’s composed, authentic leadership style that supported the Three Lions in getting further than expected in the 2018 World Cup. And, broader than ‘the beautiful game’, his positivity, perseverance and of course the success of the team, had a much wider impact on the spirit of the nation and a sense of English pride.

It is particularly notable how, as a leader, he learns from both success and failure; which is critical for innovation and engagement.  As outlined in this Business Leader article, his willingness to discuss setbacks and pressure liberated the players and staff to enjoy the challenge of competition rather than fear potential failure and engage in the “what if it all goes wrong” catastrophizing mentality.

With his authentic approach, Southgate also demonstrated an ability to empower and engage his team, which, on the whole, has a more positive impact than a more authoritarian or directive leadership style.

Innovation – Jose Mourinho, formerly Manager of Manchester United FC

Fostering a culture of innovation is especially important for leaders of teams in creative environments and a recent article in the Times provided an interesting perspective on this: “Leadership in the creative world is not about dominance. It is not about telling everyone else how to act. It is not about being punitive when things go wrong. To get the best out of creative players, a leader needs to encourage sensible risk-taking, there needs to be a tolerance of error, and a willingness to applaud spontaneity, even when it doesn’t quite come off.”

There is no doubting Mourinho’s success as a manager over the years.  To date, he remains one of the very few football managers to win league titles in three of the major football leagues of the world – England, Italy and Spain.  But his success has generally been based on more utilitarian virtues of organisation, structure and conformity – not traits that necessarily appeal to Manchester United followers who have been brought up on a more attack-minded footballing diet.

Mourinho’s autocratic style meant that he struggled to motivate and manage a team of more free-spirited individuals. In addition, his propensity to criticise players both in public and private, meant that he lost the respect of the dressing room and pushed his creative stars away rather than brought them along with him.  At which point the players no longer felt responsible for the success or failure of the team performance.  Could a more innovative leadership style in which there is an openness to change, an encouragement of new ideas and an ability to adapt and operate with different approaches to work, have been more effective for Mourinho?

Integrity and Empathy – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand

Great leaders work in collaboration with those they seek to inspire rather than prioritising their own needs, ideals or goals which can create division and difficulty.

Jacinda Ardern delivered a powerful repudiation to President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric at the United Nations General Assembly in September of last year.  Of course, President Trump’s leadership style could form the basis of an article of its own, but many placed the two leaders’ styles side by side to demonstrate the stark contrast – Ardern focused simply on the principle of ‘kindness’ and displayed a collectivist approach in contrast to Trump’s unsurprisingly less co-operative approach.  As Women in the World (online) reported: “While Ardern emphasized collectivism as the starting point to address the problems of isolationism, protectionism and racism, and strongly advocated for peace, Trump proudly listed all the collaborative bodies the U.S. has decided not to cooperate with under his leadership — including the U.N. Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court.”

Professional integrity is about a deep commitment to do the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the circumstances.  This is demonstrated through consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, expectations and outcomes.  Ardern recently very publicly took ownership of the tragic murder of British backpacker, Grace Millane who was killed by a New Zealander.  She allowed her emotions to show when she spoke on behalf of her nation and gave a very human response that we don’t often see from world leaders to an incredibly tragic incident: “On behalf of New Zealand, I want to apologise to Grace’s family. Your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn’t and I’m sorry for that.”

Resilience – Theresa May, UK Prime Minister

If the true measure of a leader is not how they perform during the good times but rather how they display emotional strength, courage and professionalism during the most trying times then, no matter what your political persuasion, it is hard not to acknowledge the resilience of the UK Prime Minister.  Much has been written about Theresa May’s leadership style.  And she has been criticised for a lack of collaboration and adaptability.  But she has shown great fortitude in the face of very difficult circumstances.

Throughout the Brexit negotiation process, she has remained steadfast in her resolve to deliver on the ‘will of the people’.  Often in the face of additional pressure from her own party for her to resign.  Resilience requires self-confidence, self-awareness and a capacity to persevere under pressure, never more so than when the confidence of others in your ability or approach is variable or lacking. Obviously time will tell whether resilience is enough!

In Summary

Good leaders need a combination of qualities to effectively motivate and manage a successful team.  So, to maximise productivity and impact as we proceed into 2019, why not take some time to consider the following:

  • What leadership lessons have we learnt from the leaders, managers, teachers and mentors in our lives over the course of 2018?
  • What do we want to do more of in 2019? What could we do differently?
  • How does what we have learned from others inform our own leadership style?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on lessons you have learned from 2018’s leaders and your own resolutions for 2019.