Leadership Lessons from a Lioness

England Lioness coach, Sarina Wiegman, offers a masterclass in contemporary leadership. Her example calls on all leaders and managers to practise empathetic leadership, create a meaningful culture, foster resilience and provide psychological safety in the workplace.

"In Sarina, we trust"

In today’s rapidly changing workplace, traditional leadership styles are obsolete. As leaders and managers confront evolving organisational needs, the emphasis on hardline autocratic management has given way to a blend of empathy, resilience, meaningful culture, and psychological safety at work. With 43% of UK managers viewing their senior leaders as ineffective (CMI), this shift in leadership skills is imperative. Such perceptions directly impact organisational growth, employee retention and job satisfaction. The contemporary requirements of leadership are more dynamic than ever before. 

Enter Sarina Wiegman, whose leadership of the England Lionesses offers a masterclass in contemporary leadership. The story of her rise from a PE teacher playing club side to leading the Netherlands team and England Lionesses is nothing short of inspirational. Beyond these accomplishments and the cheering crowds, the phrase “In Sarina, we trust” has become a rallying cry among England’s Lionesses. 

Wiegman’s leadership style offers invaluable lessons, embodying the qualities organisations desperately need to enable in their leaders and managers: empathetic leadership with high expectations, creating a culture of consistency, fostering resilience and creating psychological safety.

Empathetic leadership: high expectations with understanding

A staggering 75% of workers waste up to two hours out of their working week due to inefficient managers (CMI). This has cascading effects, costing businesses an estimated £19 billion annually in lost hours (UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills). But with Wiegman’s leadership style, there’s hope. Her players call her a “genius,” and it’s evident why. She combines high expectations with transparency and understanding, “she’s an open and transparent person – but she expects something. She expects the best all the time. It goes well together.”

Mary Earps, the Lioness goalkeeper, almost walked away from football, saying, “I decided ‘OK, I’ll give it a couple more years…’ And then Sarina came in, and life changed, literally like that. I felt like she really understood where I came from and had empathy for me as a human being… I like her directness, her honesty.”

This dual approach is a critical skill for leaders and managers who must be able to balance empathy while still getting the best work out of their teams. As highlighted in our 2023 Workplace Training Report, adopting best practices in leadership and management can enhance organisational performance by 23%. Merging empathetic leadership with high standards of working will drive results.

Chris Cooper, a Professional Development Expert at Corndel for Leadership and Management programmes and a football coach himself, says, “Organisations can learn a lot from Sarina's approach and leadership style. Behind every job is a person with a life who will experience personal tribulations and personal joys, which all leaders can take the time to learn about. This is when leaders shift from traditional leadership to true empathetic leadership.”

Creating a meaningful culture

In the modern workplace, disruptions are commonplace, and the skills needed to navigate complexities change constantly; a consistent and well-defined organisational culture can be a linchpin for success, ensuring sustainability, employee retention and growth. 

Wiegman’s coaching style lays emphasis on a culture of clarity and consistency, saying, “We agreed a couple of things on behaviours. They weren’t just words – we lived it.” Her players from the Lionesses remark, “It’s the culture that she creates. I think it’s the clarity and consistency in which she operates.” The impact of this culture is evident in the transformation she has managed to create both in the Netherlands team and the Lionesses side, achieving four consecutive championship finals with her two sides. 

A constituent and meaningful culture is something organisations must emulate. CMI reports that 93% of senior managers acknowledge skills deficiencies hindering goal achievement, while 87% of employees say professional development opportunities would help increase their job satisfaction. Just as Weigman has seen the return on the culture she has built within her teams, organisations that develop a culture of continuous learning or skills development will enjoy a twofold return on investment: bridging the skills gaps in their workforce and increasing job satisfaction of employees. 

Building intrinsic motivation

Wiegman intrinsically motivates her players by creating a meaningful culture and utilising empathic leadership. This means helping them find joy and satisfaction in the work itself rather than relying on external rewards or consequences to motivate them. Wiegman does this by setting clear and challenging goals, providing opportunities for learning and growth, giving people autonomy and responsibility, celebrating successes, and creating a positive and supportive environment.

When people are intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to be engaged in their work, creative, and productive. They are also more likely to stay with their organisations and be willing to go the extra mile.

Resilience in the face of uncertainty

The escalating integration of AI and data in the workplace directly correlates with the escalating significance of organisational resilience. Corndel’s Data Report 2023 reveals 61% of Gen Z and Millennial employees forecast that AI could replace up to a quarter of their roles in the coming decade, highlighting their heightened anxieties regarding the trajectory of the workplace. In this shifting landscape, cultivating resilience within teams isn’t just beneficial—it’s essential. This skill is poised to become a critical leadership quality sought in senior leaders and mid-level managers.

When facing setbacks in the Lionesses’ run to the 2023 World Cup Final, Wiegman said: “You try to turn every stone, and then try to already think of a solution if things happen, and today we got totally tested on those turned stones… the resilience has been really good. The confidence in the team has grown, and that has also grown over the past year. We’re just really, really accountable to each other.’

Organisations can derive several lessons by translating this sporting spirit into the workplace

Proactive problem-solving

Much like Wiegman’s ‘turning every stone’ approach, organisations must cultivate a culture where teams anticipate challenges and devise strategies in advance.

Mutual accountability stands at the core of resilience

Just as players on a football pitch trust and rely on each other, so should employees in an organisational setup. This shared responsibility creates an environment where setbacks are faced collectively, solutions are brainstormed collaboratively, and triumphs are celebrated across the business.

Continuous growth builds confidence within a team

As highlighted by Wiegman, confidence is crucial to development. Organisations must prioritise initiatives that bolster employee morale and confidence, enabling them to weather any storm and emerge stronger.

Fostering psychological safety: the art of adapting and utilising the skills of your team

Corndel’s 2023 Data Report reveals that 47% of employees believe human skills are as important as technical skills. This striking statistic requires leaders who can masterfully blend the diverse range of talents and skills available within their teams. Fusing technical prowess and emotional intelligence is crucial to fostering innovation and productivity.

Wiegman’s leadership philosophy offers a glimpse into how effective this can be. As a player insightfully observed, “She’s so composed – she knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it. But most importantly, she knows how to get the best out of us as people, as individuals on the pitch. She gives us the confidence to make mistakes.” This highlights an integral element of leadership: fostering psychological safety. In organisations, a culture where team members feel secure in taking risks without fear of retribution can spur creativity and innovation. Encouraging mistakes, when seen as opportunities for growth and learning, can lead to breakthroughs and game-changing ideas.

Embracing the universal leadership principles of Sarina Wiegman

As organisations tread the unpredictable waters of the world of work, they would do well to view leadership through the prism of Wiegman’s tenure with the England Lionesses. In her story lies the essence of highly effective leadership: empathy, resilience, culture building and fostering psychological safety. These core leadership skills resonate universally, requiring today’s leaders to be fluid in their approach, anticipatory in their strategies, unwavering in their core values, and deeply connected with their teams. They must encourage environments where innovation is encouraged, mistakes are seen as learning curves, and everyone feels valued and empowered.

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