Commentary

Southgate's coaching gives players room for thought

All primates, including humans, have a social hierarchy based on dominance. The alpha male (and it is almost always a male) ensures compliance through fear. The social cues associated with this system are also familiar.

Watch a posse of capuchin monkeys, or go to any of a number of offices in the city, and you will see leaders raising their voices, shouting, gesticulating and issuing various forms of threat.

You will also see others in the group demonstrating subservience with lowered heads, hunched shoulders and gaze avoidance.

Football, historically, has been a system based on dominance, with the manager at the apex of the hierarchy. Players are socialised into this culture early, with coaches barking instructions from the sidelines and exhibiting anger when things go awry.

Noticeably, the bared teeth, arm waving and shouting are uncannily similar to those of an alpha male in a chimpanzee troupe.

But, if the choreography of dominance-based leadership is familiar, so too are its limitations.

When players are positioned as mute labourers, unthinkingly carrying out instructions, they are less likely to engage their brains in the process of learning.

When they are made to feel fear, they are less creative and expressive, particularly in high-stakes matches. Imagine what it would be like as a concert pianist seeking to play while the conductor holds a gun to your head, threatening to shoot if you make a mistake.

The top-down issuing of tactical instructions has unintended consequences, too, for it inhibits the development of leadership qualities that are so important during matches.

Who could forget, for example, how England reacted when Iceland scored two early goals in their Euro 2016 match. Denuded of initiative, bereft of any social function beyond obeying the coach, they looked to the bench, then to each other. They were unable to step up.

Yet humans, uniquely among primates, have a distinct hierarchy based not on dominance, but prestige. As Joseph Henrich, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has documented, prestigious individuals attain influence not through fear, but wisdom.

They seek to inspire those around them not via threats, but persuasion. The basic idea is others are more likely to listen to what they have to say if they are convinced they have something to learn.

Gareth Southgate, it seems to me, is a paradigm of such a leader. You will have noted he seeks to galvanise his players not by making them quake in their boots but via encouragement.

Instead of emphasising his own status, or the power he wields, he talks about wanting to liberate his players to become the best they can be. Far from issuing top-down decrees, he talks about his desire for "independent thinkers", who are "capable of exercising initiative".

He does not bare his teeth or wave his arms to get his ideas across. On the contrary, he explains his training methods and tactics patiently, precisely because he knows players who understand and endorse the strategy are far more likely to execute it with judgment and flexibility.

Prestigious individuals attain influence not through fear, but wisdom.
​They seek to inspire those around them not via threats, but persuasion. The basic idea is others are more likely to listen to what they have to say if they are convinced they have something to learn.

In his seminal study of the indigenous Semai people of Malaysia, a group based on prestige, Robert Knox Dentan, the anthropologist, chronicled behaviours associated with this form of hierarchy.

People actively seek out the leader to gain knowledge, rather than avoiding them out of fear of retribution. They look directly in order to learn, rather than averting their gaze to signal subservience. They ask questions rather than mutely listening.

Sometimes, it is imperative for any leader to issue a threat or raise his voice. One thinks of Alex Ferguson's early years at Manchester United when he was seeking to gain control of a club that had descended into a drinking culture.

It was a fight for dominance. But once he had asserted control, it is no coincidence he used the hairdryer in the second half of his reign less frequently.

As he put it: "Harsh outbursts and tantrums can, when used sparingly, have an effect, but it's a negative and corrosive way to run anything. If you look at my teams, it was evident they enjoyed playing and tended to express themselves in an uninhibited fashion. People don't do that if they are quaking in their boots."

Football, as a sport, is slowly moving in the right direction. While some leaders continue to shout, bawl, and talk themselves up at the expense of their players, others such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino inspire rousing performances by dialling down dominance and reducing fear. They do not dictate; they liberate.

Some will say Southgate has yet to fully prove himself as a manager, while others will say that he has already achieved remarkable things at the World Cup, in addition to this week's win over Spain.

What seems indisputable is that he is one manifestation of a new style of leadership, one with implications beyond football.

Prestige, not dominance, is the future.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline 'Southgate's coaching gives players room for thought'. Print Edition | Subscribe