4 Powerful Life Lessons From Abby Wambach’s Inspiring Speech

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Abby Wambach’s now famous commencement speech to the Barnard College 2018 graduating class moved me. (You can read it here or watch it here–it’s worth the 25 minutes.)

My passion for developing and supporting leaders and helping sales organizations improve is matched by my passion for supporting young women who are building their careers and their lives. Abby’s speech inspired me on so many levels that I wanted to share. The most important messages to me included her focus on leadership, teamwork and courage, and women’s empowerment.

Throughout her speech, Abby referenced wolves as a central theme. First, she reflected on the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how this classic tale warns against being curious, making trouble, or saying too much. She used the tale as a metaphor for life and asked the graduates and their families if they have lived their lives on the path of fear. Do we stay on the path in the woods because it is safe and predictable? Because we’ve been told to? Out of fear of being eaten by a wolf? In Abby’s case, she stayed on the path because she feared being cut from the team, being benched, or losing her paycheck. But to the Barnard graduating class and to her younger self, Abby had a different message: “You were never Little Red Riding Hood; you were always the wolf.”

She also expanded the wolf theme and referenced the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. For 70 years, wolves were absent from the park, and the deer population grew unchecked. As a result, the park’s ecosystem suffered. When the wolves arrived in 1995, they thinned out the deer, and the parks’ ecosystem regenerated from plants to animals. She surmises, “The wolves, who were feared as a threat to the system, turned out to be its salvation.”

Abby then laid out her own rules for living as a wolf in a pack. “Teams need a unifying structure, and the best way to create one collective heartbeat is to establish rules for your team to live by,” she said. Here are Abby’s rules, and my thoughts on them:

1) Make Failure your Fuel

Failure is a gift. Those who don’t see it as a gift will hide from it, pretend it didn’t happen or reject it outright. They end up wasting it. “Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on,” Abby said. “You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.” How do you use your failures? Do you hide from those moments? Or do you channel them and learn from them? 

2) Lead from the Bench

We are all “benched” at times in work and life. Abby emphasized that you can be disappointed when you’re asked not to do what you do best, but don’t be blinded by frustration and miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. “If you’re not a leader on the bench, then you’re not a leader on the field,” Abby said. “You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.” Do you lead from the bench? Do you support and encourage others as they strive to reach their highest potential? 

3) Champion Each Other

Abby described the scene when all the teammates from all over the soccer field rush toward the goal scorer to celebrate. At that moment, the team is not only celebrating the scorer, but “every player, every coach, every practice, every sprint, every doubt, and every failure that this one single goal represents,” Abby said. “You will not always be the goal scorer,” she added. “And when you are not—you better be rushing toward her.” How do you celebrate when someone else on your team wins? How do you build a vision of abundance and possibility for others?

4) Demand the Ball

Sometimes leadership requires us to get behind the team and to support other’s decisions. But, sometimes leadership requires us to demand the ball—to know that our individual contribution is uniquely powerful. The key is to know when to demand the ball—and how to use it well for yourself and the team. How do you demand the ball when it’s necessary?

Abby’s closing lines were especially powerful and tied together her rules. She invited the audience to ask themselves who they want to be—not what they want to do. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that what you do will never define you,” Abby said. “Who you are always will.”

Who do you want to be? How do you incorporate that sense of self and purpose into every day of your life?