Euro 2020’s Unexpected Lesson on How to Lead in an Emergency

Euro 2020’s Unexpected Lesson on How to Lead in an Emergency
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When my editor, Becky Pocratsky, pitched me an article she wanted to write about the Denmark vs. Finland match in the UEFA European Championship tournament this past weekend, I was a bit dubious. I’m not a big sports fan, and didn’t know if the soccer field was really the place to find relatable tips. To my surprise, the story pulled me in as well. So here’s a guest contribution about how one team captain stepped on the pitch and unexpectedly taught us three lessons on leadership.

This weekend, the soccer world stopped. In the 42nd minute of the Denmark vs. Finland match, Christian Eriksen’s heart suddenly failed and he collapsed to the ground. There was a moment or two of confusion since there had been no collision or visible reason for the collapse. Then shock and horror set in as teammates and officials registered his lifeless body. Everything changed.

Now, I am not a soccer fan, but this event had me riveted. Like many, I was startled by the fragility of life. Before he collapsed, Denmark’s Eriksen was central to the match, full of energy and passion for the game. Still, the thing that really caught my attention was the amazing actions of those surrounding him. As we go through life, our regular high-stress moments may feel like emergencies, but seconds can make a difference when a true emergency strikes. Watching the footage, I saw Denmark’s captain, Simon Kjaer, immediately take action, not only to help save his teammate’s life, but also to protect his privacy and offer emotional support to others.

Respond to the top priority

Kjaer went from an intense moment of playing in the UEFA European Championship to responding to a true life or death emergency. He needed to switch mindsets just as quickly. While his teammates took the essential step of frantically calling over medical professionals, Kjaer went on the ground beside Eriksen, made sure he didn’t swallow his tongue, and put him in the recovery position. He was ready to step aside once the medical support team arrived, but he kept a level head and did what he could in the moments it took them to arrive.

In that moment of chaos, it would be completely understandable to freeze and struggle to make necessary decisions. However, Kjaer assessed the situation and knew that Eriksen’s safety was the first priority. Additionally, as the leader, he was prepared with the basic first aid knowledge, and by keeping a level head, he was ready to apply it. He did not hesitate. He knew the top priority and he was prepared to respond immediately.

Think long-term

Once Eriksen’s safety was out of Kjaer’s hands, he did not step away from his leadership role. Instead, he thought long-term and did what he could to protect his teammate’s dignity and privacy. Kjaer had the rest of the team form a circle around Eriksen and the medical personnel to shield him from cameras. This moment where Eriksen’s life hung on a thread was deeply personal and private, even if it occurred in public. Having images of his lifeless body receiving CPR on the internet forever would in no way benefit his partner or their children.

Kjaer demonstrated the presence of mind to think beyond that overwhelming moment and consider the long-term ramifications. At the moment where Eriksen’s physical needs were so overwhelming, Kjaer went on to consider the emotional effects that would ripple out from this moment, and did his best to protect the privacy of Eriksen’s teammate and his family.

Support your team

Teams rely on their leaders for support and guidance; this is exponentially true in an emergency. Here again, as we witnessed on Saturday, the number of people looking for support typically grows during an emergency. People who aren’t usually our responsibility might end up looking to us. As Eriksen’s partner, Sabrina Kvist Jensen, jumped the rail and ran towards Eriksen, Kjaer intercepted and consoled her. She is not a member of the Danish soccer team, but Kjaer knew that at that moment, he needed to step up and be there for her, too. His role as a leader was extended in a whole new way. Comforting a teammate’s partner is very far from the team captain’s job description, but he did not run from the responsibility. On the contrary, he accepted taking care of her in this moment of crisis while the medical professionals took care of Eriksen.

Sometimes in an emergency, our team grows, and we need to lead and support people that aren’t strictly our “responsibility” because that is what good leaders do. Kjaer saw the needs in front of him, and instead of thinking, “That’s not my problem” or “I have enough demands,” he saw the need and offered the help that he could.

While soccer might not be my thing, leadership is, and I think Kjaer’s example will stay with me. He stepped up well beyond the expectations of his role as team captain. My hope is that, should we ever be met with a true emergency, we can step up with the same presence of mind and selfless attitude.

(Editor’s Note: The UEFA European Championship was postponed in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but organizers have retained the name “UEFA Euro 2020”)


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Becky Pocratsky is a freelance editor and writer. She works from home with her two sweet (loud, energetic, help me!) daughters. Also she is a super geek who went to Hobbiton on her honeymoon.


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