Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Abby Wambach turns failure into fuel for leadership

Addie Broyles

Abby Wambach is known as a two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion and all-time leading international scorer, but her commencement speech at Barnard College that went viral last year helped catapult her into the next phase of her career as a leadership development entrepreneur and activist.

Wambach will be in Austin on Friday for a sold-out event with BookPeople at the First United Methodist Church, where Brene Brown will interview her about “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game” (Celadon Books, $20), Wambach’s new book about cultivating leadership, empowering women and not being afraid to pave your own path.

It is a book of lessons Wambach learned through nearly 15 years as one of the world’s leading soccer players, but it’s also about what happened next.

In one particular moment, after ESPN honored her, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant with the channel’s inaugural Icon awards in 2016, she remembered walking off the stage and realizing they were each walking into very different futures. Manning and Bryant were already sitting on millions and would continue to sign lucrative deals worth millions more than what female athletes are offered.

“Their hustling days were over, and mine were just beginning,” she said in the speech. That pay disparity was the fuel to a fire that had already been burning inside her about not only pay inequities but also the barriers to power that women face.

This is where "Little Red Riding Hood" — and the title of her new book — come in. “The fairy tale is just one iteration of the warning stories we have been told,” she says. “Stay on the path, don’t talk to anybody, keep your head down and stay hidden.” Fairy tales aren’t the only source of this message, she says. Young girls hear it from social media, advertising and maybe even families or religious institutions.

At 38, Wambach says she’s seen what happens when generation after generation, women are told to stay on the predetermined path, and she was tired of being told to feel grateful for a seat at the table. “It’s imperative to understand that the most successful people are the ones who ventured off the path,” she says. "Every person needs to define their own path. Only then can you be free."

One of the ways that women hold themselves back is a fear of failure, Wambach says. She tells several stories in the book of moments when she failed, sometimes publicly, and used those moments to gain clarity about what her purpose was in a particular situation.

After retiring, “I was going down the path of becoming a commentator, and I got there, and I didn’t prepare enough, I didn’t study enough and I didn’t know enough about the job,” she says. When the cameras turned on, she froze. Her fellow commenters knew she was bombing the spot. Viewers noticed, too. Commentating was much more of a critical job than she realized, and even if she would have prepared for the segment, Wambach realized that she didn’t want to comment on how players could have done better.

“That experience sent me in a different direction, which eventually led to the Barnard speech and this book and access to think differently about what I do,” she says.

Without that failure, she wouldn’t have pivoted into becoming an entrepreneur whose focus is developing leadership, particularly among women. “That embarrassment on national TV in my first job post-soccer was evidence of what I don’t want to do, and it made me think about what I actually wanted to do. It forced me to figure it out,” she says. “It’s a skill to fail at something or to not fully succeed and then to transform that into something positive into your life.”

Failure is critical to developing leadership skills, and how you fail as a leader can inspire the next generation of leaders after you, she says. “Every person has access to this elusive thing called leadership that many people think is an elitist thing that is only for people who are experienced and experts,” she says. “That’s just BS. Some of the best leaders of the world are raising their children, doing world-changing work that doesn’t get national attention.”

Wambach often tells the story of her final World Cup, when she was near the end of her career and she knew she wouldn’t be starting. “I needed to redefine what leadership meant to me then,” she says. “It was always by me scoring goals or being the team captain, but then I was offered a different role,” she says. Cheering on her teammates, rallying them and keeping them focused became a new kind of leadership role that was just as important, if not more.

“I wouldn’t have learned that if I hadn’t been benched.”

To promote the book, Wambach often appears on stage with her wife, fellow author and change-maker Glennon Doyle, but at the Austin event, she’ll appear with Brown, the Houston-based researcher and author who pairs science with self-empowerment. “She exemplifies putting yourself in the position of having done the work but continuing to put herself in a vulnerable position to teach us things we didn’t know about ourselves,” she says. “She’s the vulnerability master. That work is so necessary.”

Wambach is becoming her own vulnerability master, sharing the difficulties of leaving the sports world and becoming an “insta-mom” when she met Doyle, who had three kids and had just written a book about the reconciliation of her previous marriage when they announced their partnership.

Living life on one’s own terms is the ultimate act of bravery and leadership, Wambach says.

“There’s this sense that the leaders of the world all have the power, the senators and congresspeople who make decisions, but we all have to take responsibility for the life we are living right now,” she says. “You have more power than you realize. Leadership is for every single person, and if we could all step into that kind of power, the power gap would be diminished.”

Abby Wambach's rules of the wolfpack

1. Create your own path.

2. Be grateful for what you have and demand what you deserve.

3. Lead now, from wherever you are.

4. Failure means you’re finally in the game.

5. Be there for each other.

6. Believe in yourself. Demand the ball.

7. Lead with humanity. Cultivate leaders.

8. You’re not alone. You’ve got your pack.