When Kasper Hjulmand took over as head coach of the Danish national men’s team in 2020, his focus was on “identity”—establishing a foundation for everything from hiring players and staff to how the team plays.
“Everything is grounded in that identity,” Hjulmand told me. “What are my values? How do I think about the core things in my life?”
Then earlier this summer, during the opening game of this summer’s European football championship, the team’s identity was showcased in a dramatic way, in a life-or-death moment on the field. Christian Eriksen of the Danish national men’s team suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. He was medically dead before being resuscitated by defibrillator on the field. A few days later, Denmark’s team rallied to advance to the final round of the championship with an emotional victory over Russia.
When I spoke recently with Hjulmand, whom I have known for many years, our discussion did not center on football (or soccer, as it’s known in the U.S.). Rather, we focused on that moment when teammates clustered around Eriksen on the field, shielding him from cameras that kept rolling.
“Identity is the yardstick by which you know the right thing to do,” Hjulmand reflected. “We came out of that moment with a united feeling of togetherness and hope. Christian’s life is what mattered most.”
That sentiment was echoed by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who told the Washington Post how reflected on the words heard continuously over his decade-long career. “We are red. We are white. We stand together side by side.”
The European sports media has praised Hjulmand for how he handled Eriksen’s medical crisis; as The Independent observed, by “offering a human touch to his players” and managing to “marry empathy with football intelligence.”
It’s a powerful lesson for business leaders as organizations everywhere consider their own identities and how they want to be known. A shared identity guides how they recruit talent who will fit with their culture, while also valuing individuality and diversity. Even more crucial, though, is having a well-defined identity — with a strong sense of “who we are and who we want to be” — when the unexpected happens. After all, it’s not really about how successfully a product launches or a game plan is executed; it’s ultimately how leaders responds in a crisis.
Defining Identity—Five Key Steps
My most recent conversation with Hjulmand was a follow-up to a discussion that had begun in June, just as Denmark was preparing for Euro 2020, the championship that had been delayed a year because of the pandemic. At that time, we talked about identity in the context of Danish competitiveness—a small nation with big aspirations in everything from sports to arts to entrepreneurship.
When Hjulmand took over as head coach, he devoted quite a bit of time to defining and extrapolating a “Danish way” of playing. (To be clear, this does not mean the team is composed only of Danes; the men’s team includes players from other countries.) He also studied successful organizations, including the national teams in Germany and the UK, among others, and how they define themselves in five key areas. It is a page out of a playbook that organizations everywhere can adapt:
- Who we are: How does the team or organization define itself?
- How we play: What is the style of interaction and collaboration? How do we innovate and win?
- The player: Given what we know about the first two elements, what traits and competencies must people possess?
- How we lead: What leadership style brings out the best in our players?
- Why are we doing it: What mission, vision, and sense of purpose drive the team?
With these five areas as a guide, Hjulmand captured the Danish identity that’s grounded in the importance of a learning hub. Indeed, over the years that I’ve known Hjulmand, I’ve always considered him to be as much an educator as a coach, with a distinct learning engineering approach. “You break down the complexity to make a curriculum,” Hjulmand told me. “Then players can learn better and, at the end, see the full picture that helps them make new solutions.”
Identity also comes into play when substitutions are made on the field. Hjulmand is known for being very aggressive in rotating players on and off the field. As a result, players need to instantly fit in, with each other and within the complex pattern of a continuously shifting playing field and a fast pace of play.
It’s another lesson for leaders of organizations that, just like sports teams, must have the right players with an optimal mix of capabilities and strengths. “Once you know the team’s identity, it’s much easier to hire people who fit that,” Hjulmand said.
When identity is clearly defined it creates cohesion. Then everything comes together: strategy, vision, recruiting, and executing. People can play to own strengths while complementing their teammates — and never forgetting who they are and what they stand for.