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Football. Or soccer, some might say. This may seem a strange topic for a post on women’s leadership, but given the rise in popularity and prevalence of the women’s game, perhaps not.

I grew up as an avid football supporter, and I now live in Richmond, London—the home of the fictional AFC Richmond, coached by Ted Lasso. One of the key phrases in the AFC Richmond cannon is ‘make the extra pass’. Valuing the team’s success over the individual’s. Collective glory, rather than personal gain.

As women, we desperately need those who make extra passes; who don’t keep the ball for themselves in the hope of a name check on the scorecard, but look to the right and to the left to see who else they might give the opportunity to—who else they could lift up. We need men who refuse to be on all male panels and speaking line-ups. Who put us forward for leadership roles and enable our voices to be heard. Advocates, up-standers and champions.

But women can play football, too. We also need to be making those extra passes.

What, then, is stopping us?

For some, there is a genuine fear that if I pass the ball to another woman, I will lose out. It’s a scarcity mentality that looks at the world, sees so few women in senior leadership roles and calculates that if I give my opportunity to another, I will forfeit my spot.

Whereas others are unable to pass the ball because they’re not in position—in fact, some aren’t even on the pitch! These are the ones who have stepped aside, letting go of their place on the team and sitting it out on the subs’ bench. Being a woman in leadership can be hugely challenging, there is no doubt, but when we cede our spot, we can also lose our leverage to create chances for others. In particular, for those who might not get the opportunity otherwise. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t take a breath now and then—I myself ceded my spot as a school leader 2 and a half years ago, entering academia for a while before pivoting into the role I have now. The key is making ourselves available, saying—in the words of Isaiah—‘Here I am, send me’ (Isaiah 6:8).

Which brings to mind the parable of the talents.

Jesus praises the ‘good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:23). I wonder how you view the word ‘faithful’? Is faithfulness a quality we look for in our teams?  

Perhaps we think of those who are blindly loyal (pets are sometimes described as faithful friends, aren’t they?). Or maybe a directive to be compliant? As women, it can often feel like being ‘faithful’ means not rocking the boat, not making waves, not being too difficult or demanding, but rather to be the demure, calm, swan who never lets anyone see the effort it takes just to stay afloat.

However, faithfulness in this parable entails making the most of what God has entrusted to us. It is stepping into the fullness of who God designed us to be, and what he designed us for. The ‘faithful servant’ is praised for ingenuity and for the large return on the master’s investment. It is far removed from compliance—it is staying true to one’s own calling, regardless of the challenges faced, and being able to demonstrate what our faithfulness has yielded. It is grabbing hold of our call-up, getting into position on the field and making as many extra passes as we can until the score sheet brims with other women’s goal credits.

What do we have to show for what God has entrusted us with?

On the other hand, the servant who surveyed the landscape, looked at what he had been given and felt rather sorry for himself—the one with the scarcity mindset—is berated. ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ said Theodore Roosevelt; certainly, comparison with others which leads us to turn inwards and serve only our own interests robs us of fullness of life. The one who single-mindedly runs right at the goal may score, but what does this benefit her teammates in the long run? In this parable, the one who prioritises self-protection ironically ends up with nothing.

Football understands that the player who creates the goal-scoring opportunities is the MVP. The one who enables other women to be seen, heard, included, promoted and credited is ensuring a great return on her Master’s investment; she is being faithful with that which she was called to do. Not by demurely stepping aside as society might expect or want her to, but by positioning herself in just the right spot to make the cross, which puts the ball at the feet of another. And celebrating so hard when she sees the other score! Let’s not keep our opportunities for ourselves, afraid that if we share there won’t be enough to go round. Rather, may we demonstrate fidelity to our vocations and God-given gifts by passing on what we have. Ensuring we give chances to those who might otherwise be overlooked, becoming conduits for much more diverse leadership. Looking not to our own glory or self-preservation, but to the service and amplification of others. All the while, understanding that to do so, we need to get into position and hold firm—with the courage necessary to resist challenges and difficulties when (not if) they come along.

Note: This article was originally published in 2021, and republished in 2023 due to continued relevance.

Author Emily Norman

Emily Norman is the Head of Networks at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership, where she enables school leaders to come together and discuss a range of educational leadership issues through a theological lens. This includes a UK/US network in conjunction with Baylor University, specifically focused on Diversity and Inclusion. She has an MA from St Mellitus College in Christian Leadership and was previously headteacher of two urban primary schools in London.

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