What can the Denmark men’s national football team teach us about emotions and leadership?

The European Football Championship Tournament has been kicked off. During the same tournament in 2021, the love for the team was restored by the people in Denmark, and later that year head coach Kasper Hjulmand won the Leader of the Year Award in Denmark. His strategy? Speaking to our feelings.


The European Football Championship 2021 was marked by intense emotions. Good and bad.

Even if you were among the few who did not witness Christian Eriksen's collapse on 12 June 2021 during the match against Finland, you likely still recall the events of that summer evening.

You might remember the Danish team mates who formed a circle around their fellow player and friend with tears in their eyes.

Or the slow, ominous silence that filled the air as the cameras hovered over Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. Or you might recall the crushing feeling of despair accompanied by one single wish: Please live.

There was no football frenzy that evening; Finland’s 1-0 victory over Denmark felt completely irrelevant.

Later that week, something remarkable happened. Denmark met Belgium and the team rose from the ashes like a phoenix. Denmark took the lead, and the goal became the spark that ignited a burning desire for resurgence and feeling the community spirit among Danish football fans who recently had been isolated due to covid-19.

The national team spoke to our feelings, and the team itself could barely believe the support they got.

”They have to be able to feel us. (…) It is not only my national team or the Danish Football Association’s team. It is everyone’s football team. I want the people to feel them so they can be proud,” - Kasper Hjulmand, Danish magazine Ud & Se. 

Suddenly you could hear the people from Denmark loud and clear. Not just at Parken Stadium but also in sportsbars, highways and byways and at home in front of the TV.

“I have played a lot of stadiums in my life, but nothing beats this. The official figure was 25,000 people but it sounded like 75,000,” said goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to Radio Denmark after the match against Belgium.

Denmark subsequently went all the way to the semifinals; the best placement since the championship in 1992, and later that year, coach Kasper Hjulmand won the Leader of the Year Award in 2021.

So, how did the team manage to transform tragedy into euphoria? And can the leaders of today learn something from Kasper Hjulmand’s approach to emotions and leadership?

Erik Mygind du Plessis, Associate Professor at the Department of Organization at CBS, and Jette Sandager, Postdoc at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, have dedicated a chapter to this topic in the Danish book ‘Transformationens Politik: Ledelse af tidens udfordringer’, which translates loosely into ‘The policy of transformation: leading the challenges of today’. The chapter is titled: ‘(U)lykkeligt landshold? Om affektiv transformationsledelse, happy objects og fodbold ((Un)happy national team? About transformational leadership, happy objects and football)’.This article discusses the main points of the chapter.

The national team spoke to our feelings

During the European championship in 2021, we saw many extraordinary press conferences, in which players and the coach struggled to hold back their tears.

Among other things, Kasper Hjulmand said that ”it is vital that the players are able to sit with their feelings” and commented on the players’ capacity to be there for each other when a hug was needed.

In addition, he made it very clear that the people in Denmark were able to ‘feel’ the national team:

”They have to be able to feel us. (…) It is not only my national team or the Danish Football Association’s team. It is everyone’s football team. I want the people to feel them so they can be proud,” Kasper Hjulmand said in an interview with the Danish magazine Ud & Se.

”It was clear that Kasper Hjulmand’s ambition to evoke strong emotions in his players and the audience was very explicit. He had a strong focus on their affective side, which is physical and extends beyond our rational approach. He said that he wanted ‘the audience to feel us’. This is where he speaks to our affective side,” says Jette Sandager.

Kasper Hjulmand applied affective transformational leadership

We often concentrate primarily on the rational aspects of organisation and leadership. We need to make the right decisions based on facts and expectations, says Jette Sandager:

“We consider the leader as being a rational subject, who, after careful consideration and deliberation of political interests and retrieval of knowledge, reaches the optimal solution to the current challenges facing the organisation. However, often it is not the words and the thoughts that matter most,” says Jette Sandager.

She describes the rational words and the strategy as being ‘discursive’ but behind them is a completely different register, which affects us highly, which is ‘affective’. They are not necessarily opposites, but what we say and do puts us in an affective state, while an affective state sparks reactions and actions.

In the book, ‘Transformationens Politik’, Erik Mygind du Plessis and Jette Sandager write:

“The hardest part for an actor is not to learn a long manuscript by heart. It is to express every single line with the real affective toning. Similarly, you can say that the hard part of undergoing a transformation is not necessarily to write a 300-page transformation strategy. It is in fact to embed the strategy in our bodies an make us feel something about it.”

Kasper Hjulmand succeeded in talking to our affective sides, as his words and approach engaged the sympathy and acknowledgement of the audience, and the national football team experienced wide support throughout the finals.

The national football team became Denmark’s ‘Happy Object’.

But what exactly was it that Kasper Hjulmand did to make everyone in Denmark follow the national team in the 2020 championship?

First, he had formulated a so-called ‘double ambition’. It was not only about delivering sports results, it was also about making the national team felt by the people in Denmark.

The national team was supposed to be an object to make us proud, a place where people in Denmark can go to find happiness in the form of a solidary community. In other words, the national team was supposed to be a place where we all could go to feel positive emotion.

“What was most important to me was that the people in Denmark loved watching the national team again. We have to move the people, so it felt great to receive this recognition. Leading up to the finals and in the finals, we want to ignite people and create excitement regardless of the results,” Kasper Hjulmand said in an interview with Ud & Se.

And his promise of the solidary community was evident in the same interview:

”I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you so, so much. For the attention, the love and the support we have had. It means SO much. You simply cannot imagine how much it means. I really think that this is something that brings us all closer together. We feel and we know that these players act as role models to everyone in Denmark. They come from all parts of Denmark, and they fight for every girl and every boy who sit at home and for the entire nation. Getting this support in return means so much for our performance, our emotions and our pride. It gives us wings.”

How do we speak to our affective side?

You may read this and think to yourself: “I’m not the national coach, how can I do this in practice?”

How do I become better at speaking to the affective sides of my employees/colleagues?

“It is hard to control what is affective. There isn't just one strategy to learn how to engage the affective side of your employees. We wrote this chapter to spark reflection on the affective side, and a great first step is to be aware that there is such a thing as the affective side and that it has great significance,” says Jette Sandager.

”Thankfully, the affective side is not easily managed. If it were, a lot of ethical and moral dilemmas would emerge,” Erik Mygind du Plessis adds.

In this article, we will attempt to give some advice on how to become more aware of the affective side as a leader.

How to speak to the affective side of our colleagues

Clearly, you cannot order your employees to feel deeply for the organisation’s strategy. According to Jette Sandager and Erik Mygind du Plessis, this is not how our affective side works.

However, if you want to become more aware of the affective side of your colleagues, there are a few rules of thumb to make it easier:

  • Express your commitment with honesty and in an ethically responsible manner. Affect is contagious and contributes to create particularly affective communities among your employees, so consider the affect that you are circulating in your organisation and the ethical demands that follow.
  • Be a curious listener and feel actively. Be open to feeling the atmosphere at your workplace as it may not match your intentions when you deliver your messages.
  • Acknowledge your differences and work with inclusiveness. We are all different and for this reason you need to be aware of the different affective responses of your employees and reflect on how you can lead them focusing on their differences and your latitude towards these differences. 
  • Be transparent. As already mentioned, affect is contagious and it creates affective communities, so share your honest excitement and enhance the community spirit in times of hardship by sharing seriousness and disappointment.
The page was last edited by: Sekretariat for Ledelse og Kommunikation // 06/24/2024