News article

Like football, inclusion demands bold leaders and empowered teams

July 24 2023

Women’s football has led the way in how to include and enable the participation and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. In a polarized world, football and business can learn from our approach to inclusive leadership, says Tatjana Haenni.

Like football, inclusion demands bold leaders and empowered teams

There is a part of me that is deeply worried about the state of women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. From Afghanistan to the United States, we are seeing extremist movements, to varying degrees, pushing back against the progress that has been hard-won in recent decades. 

This feels like one of those moments where we risk sleepwalking into a future that feels more like the past. At this inflection point, it is paramount that leaders from all walks of life take a stand and match their well-meant sentiments with real action, even if that means being prepared to take uncomfortable decisions. That is, after all, what leadership is about.  

Inclusive leadership is obviously so much more than celebrating Pride Month with a PR campaign or a blog by your CEO on LinkedIn. These campaigns help to raise awareness and indicate a direction of travel, of course, but they are no match for deliberate, systemic change and taking a fearless stand against discrimination when it rears its head. As we have found in turning women’s football into a global phenomenon and huge growth opportunity, inclusion is an ongoing struggle that demands grueling hard work in the face of indifference or opposition, and that requires leaders to set an example to their organizations and stakeholders. 

In football, the men’s game offers prime examples of this culture of “diversity washing”. You will see national and international governing bodies create expensive videos promoting diversity for their social media platforms, but in reality, women’s competitions are still not treated in the same way as men’s tournaments, too many men’s football experts are still making decisions for women’s football, and it is almost unheard of for professional gay, male players to come out. 

Players might speak positively on the topic of gay rights, but how safe do male players feel in being their true selves in public? What have governing bodies really done to enable more players to come out as gay or bisexual, for example? Why does men’s football in Europe and North America, not to mention South America, as well as parts of Africa and Asia, lag so far behind progressive social trends? If we are serious about the rights of all people, should we not ban countries such as Afghanistan or Iran from international competition, given the extreme restrictions that women and the LGBTQ+ community face? 

“As a society, as individuals, do we really believe in our values, or are we just paying lip service to them for effect?” Tatjana Haenni is the Chief Sporting Director at the NWSL

For decades, the women’s game in Europe and North America has been leading by example on inclusion. As far back as I can remember, from playing as a young girl in Switzerland to organizing FIFA Women’s World Cups globally to now working as the Chief Sporting Director for the National Women’s Soccer League in the US, being gay or bi has never been an issue. In Europe and North America, players, coaches, match officials and administrators are generally free to be who they are in women’s football without fear of discrimination.  

That openness and diversity comes from the way we lead in women’s football. I believe there are key lessons from women’s football that leaders from all walks of life can take on board if they are serious about making a real difference when it comes to inclusion.  

You don’t know what you don’t know and certainly not what is best for others 

If you have no lived experience of a specific community, why would you pretend to know what is best for those people in the workplace or as a stakeholder? Women’s football is a different product to men’s football, and yet large parts of the international decision-making in women’s football are still dictated by men, or a small but increasing number of women who are not women’s football experts. By contrast, with the National Women’s Soccer League – the only female professional, independent league in the world – we can make decisions that meet our needs; that treat women’s football as a unique value proposition and business model distinct from men’s football. This has led to significant investment from the private and corporate sector and resulted in an incredibly successful product.

If you want to become a more inclusive – and successful – organization, make sure you have the right people at the head table and that you include the appropriate stakeholders throughout your processes. That means giving a real voice to the communities you are seeking to serve. I don’t pretend to know what is best for a black or gay man in football, and neither should you when it comes to your industry or workplace. 

Own and live by your values, for real 

We see so many examples today of people saying the right thing but ducking difficult decisions when it might mean “offending” or alienating a specific group, often a group with regressive views. As a society, as individuals, do we really believe in our values, or are we just paying lip service to them for effect? 

Lead from the top: trust your team and empower diversity 

If we want to accelerate genuine progress, your approach to leadership must reflect the change you want to make. If we don’t lead from the top, change will come from the bottom, and many leaders and organizations will be left behind. Inclusive leadership means setting the tone, and showing your organization and all your stakeholders that you are serious and that you mean what you say. Walk the talk. For example, it is not enough to surround yourself with people from different cultures and backgrounds: you must empower them too. A good leader is humble enough to be a convener and orchestrator of the best people and to let them shine, like a good football coach – not a single-minded dictator. 

Tatjana Haenni

Chief Sporting Director at the NWSL

Tatjana Haenni is the Chief Sporting Director at the NWSL. Prior to her appointment at the NWSL, she worked as the Director of Women’s Football at the Swiss Football Association (SFA) and she served as a deputy director and head of women’s competition At FIFA. Haenni began her sports business career at UEFA.


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