15 Sep 2020

The unbearable weight of making a difference

The unbearable weight of making a difference

Modern business leaders cannot only focus on financial profits but also need to demonstrate their core values and the company’s role as a corporate citizen. This is becoming a rudimentary expectation by the staff and other stakeholders. Leaders in businesses are more and more often expected to take a public and proactive stance on wider implications of their core business on society and the environment.

The field of sports in evolution

The field of sport is not immune to this development. Focusing on winning matches and organising physical activities to promote health is not enough anymore. A few weeks ago the ice hockey team Jokerit and Finnish national team in football Huuhkajat had their crash course in dealing with human rights issues outside the game arenas. While Jokerit was planning to begin their KHL-season in Minsk crowded by public demonstrations, the increasing public pressure forced them to cancel the trip at last minute. Huuhkajat was starting their UEFA Nation’s League tournament by taking a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The act was decided by the team themselves and encouraged by the UEFA campaign against discrimination in football.

These two examples follow the similar development and learning curve which sports equipment manufacturer Nike has gone through in the previous decades. The immense stakeholder pressure starting in the 1970s around the use of sweatshops in Asia pushed Nike to be one of the forerunners of promoting responsible corporate practices in the entire value chain. Since then Nike has been proactive in several human rights issues, supporting the Colin Kaepernick and BLM movement most recently.

Nike, Jokerit and Huuhkajat also faced loads of negative feedback after their actions. Publicly burned Nike sneakers in the US, social media trolls threatening Huuhkajat with a boycott and increasing pressure from Russia on Jokerit after the Minsk decision.

Conflicting requirements

The main challenge of taking a stance lies usually in conflicting requirements. The laws and rules of the game, opinions of stakeholders and interest groups, umbrella organisations’ and own management’s values, without mentioning populist trolls might all have a very different perspective to the same issue.

Leaders of tomorrow need to be prepared to deal with opposite opinions often supported by populist agendas. With populist pressures from opposing angles, enforced by the forceful logic of social media, it sometimes feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. When athletes are taking a stance, by kneeling or otherwise, they need support by the sports leaders. Or at a minimum very clear and justifiable codes of conduct and encouragement to act accordingly.

Dealing with new demands

Nobody’s perfect and nobody can fully handle all aspects of society and the environment. Leadership has to, however, be prepared and able to deal with these new demands, make the right and ethical choices, even challenge the existing system if it is not operating ethically and effectively enough. With the recently launched Sports Mini-MBA we want to help sports leaders to be proactive and decide what are the areas of their activities they want to focus and excel in. Just like with practical management tools, competence development and training is the only way forward also in values-based leadership skills. Sport is, after all, one of the most powerful tools to make a difference both in- and outside of the stadiums.


About the author

With an MBA, a Master’s in Sport Management and more than 20 years of experience in demanding leadership positions, Kimmo has a strong background in operational and strategic leadership, financial and risk management, sports marketing, stakeholder relations and CSR. He has international experience in running multisector partnerships between businesses, NGO's and the public sector. Kimmo worked as CEO and General Secretary for the Football Association of Finland and in several leadership positions in marketing, community involvement and corporate sponsorships at Nokia. Kimmo also served on the executive board of the Finnish Olympic Committee.

Image for Kimmo J. Lipponen
Kimmo J. Lipponen
CEO of the Finnish Business and Society (FIBS) ry

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