During graduation season, we reviewed commencement addresses. But we missed one of the best. Retired soccer player Abby Wambach spoke at Bernard College graduation. Clad in the standard cap and gown, with red sneakers showing beneath, Wambach delivered an address to the women’s college that was full of inspiration and advice. We think her four rules work for women and men.
Rule One: Make Failure Your Fuel
“Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it.
Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.”
Abby is right. After my Clemson Tigers lost in the NCAA football national championship game in 2016, Coach Dabo Swinney hung a banner in the practice facility that said “Runner up.” It ticked off the players for the whole year and in 2017, they won the championship and got to take that banner down and replace it with one that said “Champion.”
We don’t do it as well in business. We take failures as terminal defeats and/or we never speak about them again. We should use them as learning opportunities and fuel to go back and get at it again.
Rule Two: Lead from the Bench
“Imagine this: You’ve scored more goals than any human being on the planet—female or male. You’ve co-captained and led Team USA in almost every category for the past decade. And you and your coach sit down and decide together that you won’t be a starter in your last World Cup for Team USA. So… that sucked.
You’ll feel benched sometimes, too. You’ll be passed over for the promotion, taken off the project—you might even find yourself holding a baby instead of a briefcase—watching your colleagues ‘get ahead.’”
Lead Through Credibility and Influence
We see this most often in politics. The person who doesn’t win the nomination becomes the vice president.
We see it in sports too; not just the team leader who gets benched (I see you Jalen Hurts), but the assistant coach who doesn’t get (or doesn’t want) the head coaching gig.
In business, middle managers lead from the middle, which can feel a lot like the bench. They want the team and the boss to succeed. They are not “yes” people. They lead through credibility and influence.
Rule Three: Champion Each Other
“During every 90-minute soccer match there are a few magical moments when the ball actually hits the back of the net and a goal is scored. When this happens, it means that everything has come together perfectly—the perfect pass, the perfectly timed run, every player in the right place at exactly the right time: all of this culminating in a moment in which one player scores that goal.
What happens next on the field is what transforms a bunch of individual women into a team. Teammates from all over the field rush toward the goal scorer. It appears that we’re celebrating her: but what we’re REALLY celebrating is every player, every coach, every practice, every sprint, every doubt, and every failure that this one single goal represents.
You will not always be the goal scorer. And when you are not—you better be rushing toward her.”
This does not always happen in business. A win for a peer feels like a loss for you. But it isn’t. Abby is right. We should champion each other. Help each other. Offer a hand up. And celebrate together.
Rule Four: Demand the Ball
“When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to play with one of my heroes, Michelle Akers.
We were playing a small sided scrimmage—5 against 5. We were eighteen-year-olds and she was—Michelle Akers—a chiseled, thirty-year-old powerhouse. For the first three quarters of the game, she was taking it easy on us, coaching us, teaching us about spacing, timing and the tactics of the game.
By the fourth quarter, she realized that because of all of this coaching, her team was losing by three goals. In that moment, a light switched on inside of her.
She ran back to her own goalkeeper, stood one yard away from her, and screamed: GIVE. ME. THE. EFFING. BALL
And the goalkeeper gave her the effing ball.
And she took that ball and she dribbled through our entire effing team and she scored.”
Be as Bold as You Can Be
We aren’t always as bold as Michelle Akers. We expect someone to see our potential and reward it. They might, but they might not.
Sometimes you have to put your hand up; go out into the hall and ask for the ball, “I’ve got this;” “Let me;” “I’m ready.”
This Abby is not an advice columnist, but she dishes out some amazing advice!
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