3 Leadership Lessons for Women Entrepreneurs From Olympic Gold Medalist Abby Wambach

Business leaders. Entrepreneurs. And athletes

For anyone without a personal interest in sports, these three categories of people may seem utterly disparate and disconnected. Yet they share more in common than you might think, and it’s those commonalities that can inspire your startup to play at the next level.

First let’s talk about the links between these groups. There are a disproportionate number of top business leaders and CEOs, for example, who all played team sports when they were younger, including Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan (who played rugby at Brown) and former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb (who captained the Stanford soccer team.

And the activities of professional athletes who are also active entrepreneurs have been well-documented, from LeBron James and Lindsey Vonn to Dwayne Wade and Alex Morgan.

The critical question remains: what are the characteristics that athletes possess, that transfer over from the playing field to the startup space and business leadership?

Wambach, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the highest all-time international goal scorer for male and female soccer players, is also the co-founder of Wolfpack Endeavor, a leadership development program for women in the workplace.

Here were my top three takeaways for entrepreneurs, on skills that transfer from the playing field to leadership in business.

1. Sometimes you lead from the bench.

For soccer’s all-time leading scorer, admitting that her 35-year old self no longer belonged on the starting US team roster during the 2015 World Cup was a tough humility pill to swallow. But rather than pout or seethe, Wambach led from the bench.

“I screamed so loudly, obnoxiously, and relentlessly that the coach moved me to the far side of the bench,” she writes. “I kept water ready for players coming off the field. I celebrated when goals were scored, and I kept believing in us even when mistakes were made… The starters had left it all on the field; I’d left it all on the bench.”

At the office this translates not only to doing what you do best, and filling the role that your team most needs at different moments. Those are critical for every leader. But for entrepreneurs in particular it’s also about faith in the endeavor, and motivating your team even when their mistakes cause setbacks.

2. Access the power of failure as fuel.

You’re going to lose at some point, whether on the playing field or in business. It’s inevitable. Wambach points out, however, that women especially react to failure by panicking, denying it, or rejecting it outright. Instead, she writes, we need to “see women take risks, fail big, and insist on their right to stick around and try again. And again. And again.”

Metabolizing failure repeatedly, especially for startups, is easier said than done. But rather than exiting the field, it’s more important to pivot, recover, and stay in the game.

3. Inspire by owning your greatness.

Wambach tells the compelling story of how she learned to own the desire to win on the field, and to believe that she could be the one to make it happen. “What I learned is that the most inspiring thing on earth is a woman who believes in herself, who gives 100 percent, and who owns her greatness unapologetically,” she writes.

Why is this important for entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs? Because it frees the rest of us — whoever is watching — to use our power shamelessly also, particularly when we’re tempted to decide we’re unworthy, unprepared, incapable or not good enough.

Those are the most tenuous moments in the life of an entrepreneur, and they’re also the times when we’re most likely to throw in the towel. Shifting almost 180 degrees from those moments to a mindset where we own our greatness will take some practice but, as Wambach herself demonstrates, it’s a gold medal-winning skill to have in our toolkit.

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