Sweden's women's football coach Pia Sundhage in action. File photo: TT
On Tuesday, Sweden's men's national football team lost its second World Cup play-off match to Portugal, missing out on a trip to Brazil. Coach Erik Hamrén's contract reportedly expires at the end of this year. Looking ahead, we must give the men's team the right ingredients to succeed in the future. And one of these ingredients is named Pia Sundhage.
Everyone familiar with football knows that the game is decided on a green pitch by eleven players. But similarly to any other team or organization, it is the leader and his or her staff that are crucial to a team's performance.
In recent years, there has been a pertinent and high-pitched debate about the lack of women in the highest echelons of the Swedish business world. Corporate analysts SIS Ownership Service looked at some 231 listed companies in Sweden, and of them 16 currently have a female president. That's a low number. While there may have been some improvements, unfortunately, we haven't seen any substantial increases.
I contacted the Swedish Football Association to ask how far down in the leagues I needed to go to find a female coach heading a male elite team in football. They did not know of any female coaches of a male team anywhere in the league at all. That is startling.
It's important to stress that good leadership doesn't follow a particular formula or model. Nor should it be driven by a person's gender. A good leader can be charismatic, soft-spoken, analytical or emotional – the choice is rather about what is needed for each specific situation and challenge.
When choosing leaders, it's important to ask if the person has the right skills, relevant experience, and if leadership that can adapt to different situations and realities. All good leaders are not alike; you can succeed using many different styles. For those with the task of choosing leaders, the focus should therefore be on evaluating their competence, experience, leadership skills, and ultimately: understand what results the leader has achieved .
In the business sector, it's often said that there are no women with the right skills and relevant leadership experience for the true top jobs. In many of Sweden's largest companies, the proportion of women at the level below the very highest positions is lower than for men, which makes it easier to find men for various top jobs . Meanwhile, there are a number of other barriers to women getting the highest-profile positions.
A major obstacle is that people (not just men) tend to look for leaders that remind them of people they have seen succeed in similar roles previously – perhaps even looking for leaders who resemble themselves. It's not in itself surprising that they look for behaviours they recognize, but it makes it difficult for those who are different or want to exercise their leadership in a different way.
I have never come across men who deliberately shut women out of top jobs – what happens, happens without intent. Which doesn't make it less important. For if good leadership can take so many different shapes, then those who pick leaders can't only look for a predetermined profile as clearly defined as the edges of a cookie cutter (preferably in the shape of a man).
What we now see in sports in general, and in football in particular, is that women are not seen as potential leaders of men. And that is a slap in the face to equal opportunities and the entire concept of diversity. We need a culture and an approach where we choose leaders based on who is best suited for the role – regardless of gender. It can't be the right man in the right place – it's about the right person in the right place.
We have a football team with a huge challenge ahead of them: to rebuild a team for a future championship after a disappointing play-off.
Whatever the challenge, the Swedish men's national team has a better chance of success if they get the country's top football manager. That leader is Pia Sundhage, current coach of the Swedish women's national football team.
Pia has a unique experience. She has nearly 150 caps as a player for the Swedish women's team, has been a professional abroad, and after her playing career she worked as a trainer for both club and national teams. It's just as important for a football coach as it is for a CEO of a construction company or a newspaper to have done the job they ask others to do. It is not essential, but it is no doubt an advantage. It provides a deeper respect for the challenge.
Even more important, however, is leadership ability and experience from relevant situations. Pia's experience from three national teams, World Cup finals, Olympic finals, and managing both failures and successes in these teams is many times greater than the experience of any other Swedish football coach. They may have trained men, but they have not been a part of such high-profile competitions.
It is in these very extreme situations that leaders shows how well they deal with immense pressure and high expectations – to manage the situation while at the same time being clear in their tactics and getting players to believe in the way forward.
Pia's accomplishments as a coach include two Olympic gold medals and a second-place finish at the World Cup, but also awards for her leadership. Most recently, she won Fifa's prize for the world's best female football coach, voted on by fellow coaches and media from around the world.
Measured in terms of competence and leadership, as well as in terms of achievements, Pia is thus unique among Swedish football coaches. It's very difficult to find someone who has a better profile to lead a national team.
This question may to appear to be one related to gender equality, but it is just as much about ambition and achievement. Swedish men's football team has has a greater chance of success by having Pia Sundhage as its head coach. Of course, it remains to be seen if Pia would choose the men's team ahead of the women's and isn't something that should be taken for granted.
But she should at least be asked the question.
Tor Krusell has nearly three decades of experience in the business world, including leading positions at large Swedish companies like Skanska. He has written a book on leadership and currently advises executives and board members on leadership.
A version of the article was originally published in Swedish in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper. English translation by The Local.