Abby Wambach: “You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Be a Great Leader”

"Perfection is not a prerequisite of leadership. But we can forgive ourselves for believing it is."

Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock
Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Women haven’t yet accessed the power of failure. When it comes, we panic, deny it, or reject it outright. Worst-case scenario, we view failure as proof that we were always unworthy imposters. Men have been allowed to fail and keep playing forever. Why do we let failure take us out of the game?

Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.

Perfection is not a prerequisite of leadership. But we can forgive ourselves for believing it is.

We’ve been living by the old rules that insist that a woman must be perfect before she’s worthy of showing up. Since no one is perfect, this rule is an effective way to keep women out of leadership

It’s time for a new rule.

Women must stop accepting failure as our destruction and start using failure as our fuel. Failure is not something to be ashamed of—nor is it proof of unworthiness. Failure is something to be powered by.

When we live afraid to fail, we don’t take risks. We don’t bring our entire selves to the table—so we end up failing before we even begin.

Let’s stop worrying: What if I fail? Instead, let’s promise ourselves: When I fail, I’ll stick around.

After I retired from playing, I was hired by ESPN to commentate the men’s 2016 UEFA European Championship—an internationally televised soccer tournament. I traveled to Paris, settled into my hotel, and showed up the first day feeling nervous and excited. The second the red “on air” light turned on, my brain turned off. The other commentators easily conversed about players, stats, and systems. I couldn’t even remember how to speak. Within the first five minutes I could tell that I was in way over my head. When I checked my Twitter feed it became clear that the rest of the world could tell, too. I had failed. My embarrassment burned. I was tempted to get on the first flight home. I kept showing up and saw the tournament through to the end, but it was brutal.

On the flight home, I felt sick. I kept thinking: Commentating is what former athletes do. After failing at this, are there any options left for me? I went home and sat with this fear for a long time. Eventually, I decided that I had two options. I could use this public failure as a career-ending excuse or I could use it as helpful information. I could take from this experience that I was destined to be a failure, or I could take from it that I wasn’t—at this moment— destined to be a
commentator. I crossed commentator off my list and kept throwing darts. A few months later, I founded my leadership company. Every day now, I do what I love—teaching emerging leaders how to become champions for them- selves and others. That commentating failure didn’t end my career—it helped me find my career. Some- times we use failure to push us further down the same path. Other times, we let failure guide us to a new path. But we always keep moving forward.

The world needs to see women take risks, fail big, and insist on their right to stick around and try again. And again. And again. A champion never allows a short-term failure to take her out of the long-term game. A woman who doesn’t give up can never lose.

From Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game by Abby Wambach. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

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