What can Iceland’s football team teach us about women in leadership?

Let’s learn a lesson or two from the Vikings.


The Icelandic miracle is over for this World Cup, but with inspiring play and a draw against Argentina (1-1) these North Atlantic peaceful marauders have captured our hearts once again.

How did a country of merely 350,000 make it so far? Others have described the miracle, including Time Magazine in a cover story on June 7.

time_icelandA combination of investment in year-round facilities, more and better coaches, a sports-for-all philosophy, and full support from the population has paid off.

Can we learn anything from this in a business setting? Yes, I believe we can.

Increase the talent pool

On one level, it’s a numbers game. If you look at the best teams in football, you see big countries like Germany, the UK, and Brazil, but also small ones like Croatia, Uruguay, my native Denmark, and yes, Iceland, punching way above their league in terms of population.

On the other hand, China is a mediocre team which rarely qualifies, not to speak about India or Indonesia.

So it’s not about how many people, it’s about how many people play football. This is a different picture, with Iceland in 17th place with 11% of the population in 2006 (probably even more today).

The business application of this has been raised before. By actively or passively excluding minorities, you are reducing the talent pool for employees and leaders. And if you routinely discard half of your employees for leadership positions just because of your gender, you miss out on a lot of potential.

For instance, women hold only 14.2 percent of the top five leadership positions among S&P 500 firms, Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote for Inc., stating: “Companies that ignore the insights of their talented women will lag the curve in delivering successful solutions to the marketplace.”


Remove barriers

True to its name, Iceland has long, cold, and wet winters. This was previously a big obstacle for raising the level of outdoor sports, but by investing in indoor facilities and making them accessible to all children and young people, they effectively removed one of the key barriers to success.

To achieve equality in a corporate setting it is necessary to look at both invisible barriers. These can include work-life balance opportunities, meeting schedules, but also cultural elements such as excessive ‘locker-room talk’, small-talk in a native language, or other elements of stereotyping.

More and better coaches

Instead of relying on parent coaches, Iceland has invested heavily in upskilling of their coaches, with a huge increase in UEFA-licensed coaches, and not only to top-tier clubs. “In Iceland, anyone can join a local sports club that employs elite coaches, for an average of $600 a year,” writes Time.

To succeed in business, you also need good coaches and mentors. If middle-managers play the dog-eat-dog game, thinking only about their next promotion, they are not worthy of the manager title. On the other hand, having managers who nurture and guide their people, spotting talent, also in minorities, is essential to the long-term success of any organization.

Secure full support

Everyone in Iceland is a part of the football adventure. New York Times writes that “In a country of fewer than 350,000 people, most everybody either knows someone on the team or knows someone who does. There is no celebrity culture.”

Around 30,000 fans travelled to France for the Euro 2016 – that’s more than 10% of the population! Similar numbers are reported for the World Cup in Russia. And a staggering 99.6% watched the match against Argentina.


How’s that for a commitment to corporate values? Nobody would expect numbers like that, but if you do want to succeed as a company, you’re surely better off if your employees support the journey. And that’s all employees, mind you.

So, to sum up, there’s a lot to learn from Iceland. Who, by the way, had the world’s first democratically elected female president, from 1980 to 1996. Huh!

Remembering the secret neighbor

I’m not a boxing fan; in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched a match. But Muhammad Ali, who passed away last Friday, was a household name when I grew up. Not only was he a famous world champion, who had somewhat obscurely changed his name after converting to Islam, he also lived next-door.

Yes, of all the places in the world, Muhammad Ali had chosen to settle after retirement in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a small town of 2,000 people. He moved there in 1986, the same year my father’s academic pursuits brought our family to the very same town.

I never saw or met him myself, and according to media he mostly kept to himself. But just knowing the fact that a world-famous sports champion was living in the neighborhood brought a sense of excitement and awe to us. And as was later been revealed, he provided anonymous support to many local causes.

We moved away, and so did he, leaving Michigan in 2006 for Arizona for health reasons due to his battle with Parkinson’s. But his estate is still there – in fact, it’s just half a mile from my parent’s current home, and we regularly walk past the gates when taking an afternoon stroll. This is a picture I took of his main gate back in 2012.

Muhammad Ali Berrien Springs home

Muhammad Ali Google

Although he made a career hitting people, it is perhaps Ali’s legacy of peace that stands out the most. His resistance to the draft for Vietnam earned him fame, and a lawsuit. Troubled by xenophobic America, he found solace in religion, standing up for Islam as a religion of peace especially in the tensions following 9/11.

Muhammad Ali will be buried tomorrow in Louisville, Kentucky. May he rest in peace.

Olympic Gays

Tomorrow the second instalment of World Outgames begins here in Copenhagen. A mixture of sports and culture, this is a festival of all things queer. Homosexuals from around the world will visit our fair city and make the streets colourful. More than just a sports tournament, this is a celebration of diversity. And as such, I’m proud to live in a city this open. (In many other ways we’re somewhat closed, actually, but in my opinion this festival is a good thing.)

Some would doubtless criticise, and they might ask questions such as:

Why do gays need their own event? Can’t they just join the regular Olympic Games? To be short, no. In many countries being openly gay means condemnation, expulsion from professional sports or other careers, or even (capital) punishment. That’s not right.

You’re a Christian – shouldn’t you be condemning gays? It is true that the Bible opposes practised homosexuality. But much more vehemently, the Bible teaches love, acceptance and non-condemnation. Homosexuals and Christians are both minority groups, and as such we ought to have a common cause: the right to live as we wish, regardless of what the majority thinks. Instead of fighting each other, wouldn’t it be wonderful if gays and Christians could join hands in fighting for diversity and minority rights?

Are you gay? No, but if I were, would you think less of me? I hope not.

Dear Enemies, Please Don’t Hate Us

Danish intelligence has warned our participants at the Olympic Games in Beijing that they are among those under the most threat by terrorists. The assessment has been made by Chinese authorities, which put Denmark in the same grade as the US and Israel.

This is not good news of course, and might serve as a wake-up call for Danes to some of the realities of the world today. Not so for handball and Olympic delegate player Kasper Hvidt, though, who comments:

“I must say that as a Dane I am shocked that we even want to be in the same league as such extreme countries. I have to say. It really saddens me. Not just because of my participation in the Games, but as a Danish citizen.” (In Berlingske Tidende, my translation)

How naïve. First of all, calling the US and Israel “extreme” is exaggeration at the least. But as if him being sad would make any difference. Nobody wants to be hated. People might speculate that the threat is due to our engagement in Afghanistan or the Mohammed cartoons, and that had we just minded our own business, none of this would have happened. But while the cartoons have obviously made a difference, the notion that the terrorist threat could be avoided is utterly wrong.

In the world of today there is no such thing as minding your own business. There is only closing or opening your eyes. To some, the mere existence of Denmark as a secular and liberal state, is an offence. These are the real extremists: jihadists and fundamentalists. Not the average Muslim or the majority of Muslims (if they were ever asked). But some people in Denmark need to open their eyes to the fact that certain people actually hate them for being Danish, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it. Except taking the necessary consequences and moving on.

Beijing: Boycott or Engagement?

Recent events have put China in the spotlight once again as an oppressive regime that abused human rights and what not. China’s friendliness with Sudan, their alleged oppression of minorities in Tibet, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing have led numerous western figures to denounce the regime, protest the Olympic torch relay and even call for boycotts of the Olympics. There is no easy answer, but let’s get real for a moment.

I don’t believe the Tibet situation has been handled very well. China should long ago have taken up on the offer to meet the Dalai Lama. He is not a separatist, and he could be the key to a peaceful normalisation if only Beijing would swallow their pride and start talking to him. While calling the crackdowns in Lhasa genocide is surely exaggerated, there probably have been mishandlings of the minority. In principle, Tibet should have the right to declare independence, but that may not even be the wish of the majority – the Dalai Lama does not call for independence, only greater autonomy.

I am also of the opinion that China (as many other nations) could do more to pressure Sudan in the case of Darfur. We should continue trying to convince China that action here is needed. Hardly a cause for boycott, though.

When it comes to freedom of speech in China, I generally take the optimistic stand that quite a lot is actually tolerated. I do not know, however, whether I would be able to write so openly on this blog if I were in China. (To any PRC readers: I’d love to hear your comments, if possible.)

These disagreements with China are to some a cause for boycotting the whole or parts of the Olympic Games. While the Olympics are a huge media event, it is still a very cheap shot for western politicians wanting to look good and human rights-oriented. The reality is that nobody can foresee a regular economic boycott – this would not be affordable to any western economy, especially not under the current downturn. Bashing the Chinese now is a hollow call with fairly few consequences.

Some then would argue that greater measures are needed. Michael D. Peabody writes today on the Spectrum Blog that free trade with China has not, as previously thought, lead to improvements on human rights, and that “as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.”

I disagree. I think that human rights, while still not equal to Western Europe or America, have improved in China. And no matter what, we may never agree on which rights are fundamental. America historically have a tendency to promote on democracy and freedom of speech, while Europe is more focused on social security and living standards. Yes, China may lag behind in democracy, but their progress over the last decades in living standards, economic freedoms, quality of life, and also freedom of religion are staggering.

Furthermore, history should teach us that boycotts rarely actually give the wanted results. Think of Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, or even the Mohammad crisis. Economic sanctions sound nice and peaceful, but usually fail to deliver. There are things that we may disagree on with China, and they should not be overlooked. However, as stated previously on this blog, I believe engagement is a much more worthwhile option than boycott.