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You don’t have to be a sports fan to learn important leadership lessons from Abby Wambach.
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Improvement Lessons from Olympic Gold Medalist Abby Wambach

By Jo Ann Endo | Tuesday, October 29, 2019

When IHI staff members learned that Abby Wambach is going to deliver a pre-conference keynote at this year’s IHI National Forum, there was a murmur in the room. The excitement was palpable.

Wambach is a two-time US Olympic gold medalist and World Cup soccer champion. No other woman or man has scored more international goals, so it’s not surprising that she was elected to the US National Soccer Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to be inspired by Wambach. In her Barnard College commencement address in 2018, she translated her experience leading the US women’s soccer team into leadership lessons that went viral. The following excerpts are from her book, Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game:

  • “Make failure your fuel.” Wambach may not use the phrase “failing forward,” which is often used by health care improvers, but she has asserted that it’s important to draw strength from failure, especially when you’re challenging the status quo. “Let’s stop worrying: What if I fail?” Wambach writes. “Instead, let’s promise ourselves: When I fail, I’ll stick around.” It’s easy to imagine Wambach embracing the idea of running PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) and learning from small tests of change!
  • “Be grateful for what you have and demand what you deserve.” Women in health care leadership roles have a kindred spirit in Abby Wambach. She, too, has led teams in a field still largely seen as led by men. Wambach has described how she used to fear making waves. “I was so grateful for a paycheck,” she writes. “[I was] so grateful to represent my country, so grateful to be the token woman at the table, so grateful to receive any respect at all that I was afraid to use my voice to demand more for myself — and equality for all of us.” She has since become an outspoken pay equity advocate. “What keeps the pay gap in existence,” she writes, “is not just the entitlement and complicity of men. It’s the gratitude of women. Our gratitude is how power uses the tokenism of a few women to keep the rest of us in line.”
  • “Lead from wherever you are.” Wambach writes that “the fiercest leaders I’ve ever seen have been parents,” so it makes sense that she believes senior executives or team captains aren’t the only leaders worth following. “Leadership is volunteering at the local school, speaking encouraging words to a friend, and holding the hand of a dying parent,” she writes. Wambach advocates leading with humility, inclusivity, and empathy. “The old way is to lead with invulnerability and enlist followers,” she writes. “The new way is to lead with full humanity and cultivate a team of leaders.”

It’s important to note that — while Wambach’s leadership ideas are universal — she also unapologetically asserts her views from a woman’s perspective. In an incident she describes in her book, when asked if her leadership presentation would also be applicable to men, she responded, “Good question! But only if you’ve asked every male speaker you’ve hired if his message is applicable to women, too.” Women, Wambach argues, have always had to find ways to relate to content from the male perspective. “It’s essential to flip this and allow men the opportunity to find themselves within content presented from a woman’s perspective.”

Jo Ann Endo, MSW, is IHI’s Senior Managing Editor, Digital Content & Blog.

You may also be interested in:

Sessions about Leadership are part of IHI’s National Forum this December.

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