18 Aug 2023

It’s Sarina Wiegman’s world, we’re just living in it: What we can learn about leadership from the Lionesses’ undisputed managerial GOAT

Written by Joe Jordan, Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

When Sarina Wiegman took the helm of the England women’s national team back in 2021, the side had been saddled with the unwanted tag of courageous losers, having fallen short of glory with third place finishes at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and been eliminated at the semi-final stage of the European Championships in 2017.

The Lionesses’ relative failings of the 2010s are the product of a governing body that was out of touch with the women’s game. The uninspiring appointment of Wiegman’s predecessor Phil Neville, a man with many on-pitch accolades but far fewer managerial credentials, was met with exasperated sighs and yielded a meagre win rate of 54% (a figure that pales in comparison to a staggering 79% for Wiegman). Mark Sampson before him exited the role in disgrace, facing accusations of racism, bullying and harassment.

Wiegman’s installation as head honcho was a breath of fresh air. She was charged with transforming a crop of players that had so often found themselves adjacent to greatness into natural-born winners, a mission she has undoubtedly fulfilled. As the first manager to win back-to-back European Championship (the first victory came in charge of her native country the Netherlands), bringing the World Cup back to English soil for the first time since 1966 would certainly cement Weigman’s status as the English national team’s most successful manager ever.

Recent reports suggest that Wiegman is being considered for Gareth Southgate’s role as manager of the England Men’s team once he steps down – although it’s hard to fathom why she’d be interested in a pretty obvious downgrade. But this is a clear indication that the FA wants to see the same fearlessness, ruthlessness and determination, that Wiegman has made the hallmark of the Lionesses, instilled in the Men’s side.

So what exactly is it that makes Wiegman a great leader? And how can we bring these qualities into our own lives and careers?

Win pretty, win ugly, it doesn’t matter

Despite reaching the final, England have been far from their fluent best over the course of the tournament. A 6-1 thumping of China in the final game of the group stages was preceded by drab single goal victories against Haiti and Denmark. The Lionesses were even on the brink of elimination against a Nigeria side that thoroughly outplayed them, scraping through via a penalty shootout.

Sub-par performances have been somewhat expected given the list of notable absentees – England have been without three likely starters for the entire tournament, including captain Leah Williamson.

However, the ability of this England side to grind out results while missing key players is a reflection of the grit, tenacity and sheer will to win that Wiegman has injected into the group. The firm belief that they can win the tournament has not wavered in the Lionesses’ camp, despite media speculation that they’re a few players short of going all the way. It takes a unique leader to breed confidence throughout an entire squad, and Wiegman has inspired her players to trust the processes and truly have faith in themselves and their ability.

We can apply this same mode of thinking to the way we approach teamwork in our own place of employment. Projects or campaigns won’t always run smoothly, and it’s important that team leaders keep morale high and make sure the whole group feels that they can turn things around in order to achieve success.

It’s also interesting to consider how Wiegman has communicated with the fans and the media after underwhelming England performances. The Lionesses were branded as rusty, lethargic and predictable in the aftermath of the opening game against Haiti, but the England manager ignored the naysayers and instead gave a fair assessment of the areas her team would look to improve in the next game.

This is a prime example of staying calm and keeping a cool head when things aren’t going as you may have planned. When leading teams, even in times of crisis, we should all try to emulate this logical way of thinking and focus on how we can improve rather than entering a negative mindset.

Protect your team above everything

The great football managers are also great people managers – you must be proficient in motivating, inspiring and nurturing the entire team if you are to be successful in the role – and Wiegman’s ability to shield the players from external noise has played a massive part in the team’s success.

When Lauren James was sent off for a petulant stamp against Nigeria in the quarter-final, a moment of madness that could have cost England their place in the tournament, Wiegman showed empathy and understanding instead of instantly condemning James’ behaviour.

After the game, Wiegman said: “Sometimes that happens with human beings. It is an intense game. In a split second she lost her emotions. Of course she apologised. Things happen, you can’t change it. It’s a huge lesson for her to learn but isn’t something she did on purpose. Of course she doesn’t want to hurt anyone she is the sweetest person I know.”

She has also showed faith in Ella Toone throughout the tournament, with detractors criticising her for a string of poor performances, and was duly rewarded when Toone hammered home the opening goal against Australia in Wednesday’s semi-final.

Demonstrating a willingness to protect an individual, even when they have made a mistake, ingrains a feeling of trust throughout the wider team, as they know their leader would stand up for them if they were in a similar position. Mistakes are an inevitable part of our personal lives and our work lives, and having a figurehead who will defend you when you make an honest misjudgement can transform a culture of fear to an empowering environment.

Always be willing to adapt

James’ red card and subsequent two-game suspension also prompted Wiegman to unveil another bow in her managerial quiver: her ability as a master tactician. Scoring three and assisting three in the group stages, James had been England’s offensive lynchpin, and finding an attacking spark in her absence seemed a daunting prospect.

Typically known for her consistency in terms of tactics and selection, Wiegman was forced to switch things up, recalling Lauren Hemp to the starting line-up, who dazzled in a player of the match performance against Australia.

It’s rare that things ever go exactly to plan in the workplace, and managers must be able to show this same adaptability when faced with an unforeseen challenge. Making difficult decisions under pressure separates a good leader from a mediocre one, and it’s important that we show the bravery to make the necessary changes when a situation demands this of us.

It’s coming home?

A Lionesses World Cup triumph would be no accident − it would be the culmination of years’ worth of planning and hard work. If we show the same level of diligence, compassion and tactical proficiency that Wiegman has displayed in the dugout in our professional lives, it will stand us in good stead to achieve our own version of her success.