5 Leadership Lessons from the European Champion England Women’s Football Team

The Lionesses’ triumph shows that success takes time, the right mindset, and the right leaders.

It’s been a full week, but the buzz about England winning the European women’s football championship can still be felt throughout the country—and beyond. Members of the team are being mobbed by fans. Tickets for upcoming matches are selling out in hours. And the players are using their clout to try to change government policy. “It’s awe-inspiring,” says Mark Richardson, an 1996 Olympic silver medalist and Korn Ferry senior client partner.

It would be easy to attribute the team’s success to narrow, football-specific strategies. But experts say that the team used an approach, both during the tournament and well beforehand, that virtually any organization can adopt to improve its performance.

Here are the five lessons from England’s Women’s Euro triumph that leaders anywhere can implement.

The right mindset is essential.

All of the team’s Euro games took place in England. At the final in London, they were met by 80,000 screaming fans. The pressure to win was sky-high, not least because England hadn’t won a football-related title in more than 50 years. Add to that the fact that the men’s team had lost in the title match of the European championship just a year earlier—in the same stadium, no less. Individual team members needed the right mindset to quiet that pressure, or it could overwhelm them. Players, or members of any team, need to believe in themselves. “A high level of self-belief is one of the biggest indicators of high achievement,” Richardson says.

Such expectations might seem to do only one thing—induce stress—but in fact they can provide a great deal of clarity. “You know in advance all that anxiety. You can’t change that, but you can control how you respond to it,” says Khoi Tu, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global head of the firm’s Culture and Change business. Individuals can actually practice dealing with that type of pressure. For some of the English players, that involved blocking out social media and taking boat trips along the River Thames. “Bring the pressure into the light and empower your team to be able to respond to it in ways that are more productive,” Tu says.

A leader can turn very good into world-class.

It’s not like the England women’s team was a non-entity before this tournament. In 2019, it had reached the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup, giving the US team all it could handle before eventually losing, 2-1.

In 2021, the team hired a new coach—Sarina Wiegman, the manager who had recently led the Dutch women’s team to both the European championship and the World Cup Final (where it had also lost to the US team). Wiegman was able to create an environment of unity and harmony, Richardson says. Competition for positions didn’t detract from the larger goal. “Leaders need to create the conditions and the engagement, along with a future focus and an aspirational quality,” he says.

Legendary Italian soccer manager Giovanni Trapattoni once said that a good coach can improve a team by 10 percent, but a bad coach can make it worse by 30 percent. During Wiegman’s tenure, the England women have played 19 matches, winning 17 and drawing two. “They became a juggernaut of high performance,” Richardson says.

Greatness takes longer than three weeks to implement.

The success of the team didn’t start in 2019. The groundwork was laid nearly two decades earlier, when the leaders of English football started investing in the infrastructure that had been lacking in the women’s game. Just look back to the 1995 Women’s World Cup, Tu says: “The England women had no meeting room at the hotel and no bus.”

Things like professional player contracts, a nutrition program, and sports psychology services (not to mention transportation to games) are relatively new for England’s women’s team. In addition, leaders standardized training for women’s national teams at all age levels, improving the country’s chances of consistently producing high-quality players and clubs. Creating the right structure is essential for any organization, whether the goal is to produce winning football organizations, develop high-tech software, or any other kind of success, Tu says.

Having a purpose helps.

Obviously, the England women were playing to win the tournament. But before, during, and after the matches, the players talked about what such a victory could bring: more girls playing the sport, more fan interest, and increased respect for women athletes everywhere. Some went even further, suggesting that a win could promote gender equality in fields far away from the soccer pitch. “We changed the society, and that is what we want. That is so much more than football,” Wiegman said after the final game.

We all have the desire to be a part of something larger, Tu says. Leaders can build an environment that taps into that, tying an individual’s motivations to an organization’s higher purpose. “Hitting your numbers is a powerful motivation. But hitting your numbers to build a better society for your kids to grow up in taps into a much bigger thing,” Tu says.

Don’t let success be temporary.

Ironically, leaders face one of their biggest challenges right after a big triumph: How can victory be not merely a moment, but also the start of a movement? In the case of the England women’s team, channeling the energy that their championship win has unleashed has been crucial. On the pitch, leaders will need to sustain the winning mindset they established before the Euros. After all, the Women’s World Cup, which brings together the best national teams from around the globe, is only one year away.

It’s success off the pitch, however, that will ultimately define whether the women’s triumph was just a moment or a movement. Leaders within women’s football will be tasked with drawing more girls into the game, negotiating bigger and more lucrative contracts with media networks and sponsors, and making women’s soccer matches in the country more accessible to fans. There’s the societal aspect, too. Only days after their triumph, the players wrote a letter to the English government in which they called for all girls to be allowed to play football at school (right now, the players say, only 63 percent of girls can do so). “Don’t waste the opportunity,” Tu says.