What lioness leadership can teach CEOs

Having just lost her second consecutive World Cup final, Lionesses coach Sarina Wiegman might have been forgiven for feeling more than a little sorry for herself.

But as she collected her award as Women’s Coach of the Year at the draw for the Men’s Champion’s League last week, she instead paid tribute to the Spain team who’d denied her the chance to exorcise the pain of four years ago.

Referring to the behaviour of Spanish Football’s President Luis Rubiales when he kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the lips after the match, Wiegman said:

‘We all know the issues around the Spanish team and it really hurts me as a coach as a mother of two daughters, as a wife and as a human being and it shows……..that the game has grown so much but there is also still a long way to go in Women’s Football and in society.

‘And I would like to dedicate this award to the Spanish team, the team that played at the World Cup such good football that everyone enjoyed.

‘This team deserves to be celebrated and to be listened to. I am going to give them a big round of applause and I hope you will join me.’

Her comments in front of a largely male audience were applauded and in the days since, has served to heap more pressure on authorities and figures within the men’s game particularly to do more. That is something that does seem to be happening: witness the the sacking of Spanish coach Jorge Vilda this week.

Watching Wiegman speak, I found myself moved by what she said – and how she said it. As someone who helps leaders of large organisations say the right thing and strike the right tone – I thought I’d try and unpick why her short, profound speech had such an impact.


First: the context. Here she is days after her biggest career disappointment and she’s still able to be clearheaded enough to see the bigger picture and prioritise others. She’s collecting an award and still not making this moment about her. She sees an opportunity to use that moment and that platform to reach a key audience with an important message. For her, it’s clear the issue is about women everywhere and the women’s game that she loves. And that includes lifting up the Spain team that has just knocked her team down. Itwould have been so easy for her to refer to or make a joke about Spain beating England to perhaps lighten the tone, but she didn’t. Her tone is serious. Message: this is serious. 


Second: her delivery. She’s calm and speaks slowly, which increases her authority. She doesn’t sound like a campaigner or someone trying to convince or win us over – and that’s arguably why she does and she gives her opinion (shared by many) as if it is fact. She doesn’t use words like ‘I think’ or ‘You should.’ Instead, she uses phrases that offer certainty like ‘There is’, ‘We all know’ and ‘This team deserves.’ 


Just as she doesn’t sound like a campaigner in her tone, she also doesn’t lecture or blame. It would have been too easy to use the palpable public anger to garner support by demonising Rubiales. Instead, she puts the responsibility on everyone and calls out the bigger problem – ‘there is still a long way to go in Women’s Football and in society.’


She’s also vulnerable and brave: brave to enter a primarily male space and use this moment to speak up and call out the behaviour – not everyone would – and vulnerable as a leader to share how she feels and why. ‘it really hurts me as a coach as a mother of two daughters, as a wife and as a human being.’ She’s immediately giving us both vulnerability and information about herself that makes her more human and more relatable.


To end she invites (not implores or demands) the audience in the room to join her in a gesture she says she is going to make. ‘I am going to give them a big round of applause and I hope you will join me.’ Again this is real leadership, committing to doing something herself without any expectation that others will do the same – and simply inviting people to join her.  It’s the way she invites solidarity, rather than demands it that means the room erupts to loud applause.

So in summary, if you are looking to lead on an issue and take people with you:

First – don’t make it about you – make it about something bigger

Second – use the language of leadership – speak with certainty, clarity and humility  

Third – don’t blame others or look for excuses – bring people together behind a common mission

Fourth – Be vulnerable – make it personal and share something of yourself

Five – Leadership takes bravery – when you take the first step there’s always a risk others won’t follow

And of course if you are looking to level up your Leadership Communications for someone in your team – get in touch with us at leadershipcoaching@headlandconsultancy.com

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