The U.S. women’s soccer team’s performance in their match against Brazil in the FIFA World Cup on Sunday has a lot to teach us about leadership today. It wasn’t only the victory, which occurred after a grueling 90 minutes of regulation play, 30 minutes of overtime and 10 penalty kicks. Nor the additional challenge of being a player short for more than 55 minutes, nor even the questionable refereeing—which in one case resulted in a retaken penalty kick and score for Brazil. Throughout, the U.S. team kept their composure, dealt with obstacles and never gave up, scoring in the 122nd minute of play to take the game into penalty kicks. Impressive, but what lessons can we take away to help us with America’s problems today?
The answer takes us back to 1972 and the Title IX amendment of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in educational programs on the basis of sex. This legislation, perhaps unwittingly, changed the future of our nation. Although I was young in 1972, I remember people worrying about girls playing sports—how they would become too competitive, muscular and, by inference, ‘ugly.’ If you’ve watched any of the World Cup, you know these fears were unfounded.
Title IX created opportunities at a pivotal point; and a generation of girls gained confidence, strength and a sense of pride in their achievements through sports. I’m old enough to remember the repercussions of Title IX and lucky enough to have benefitted, playing sports in high school and college programs that did not exist for the generation of young women before me. For many of us, these qualities later translated into life and work successes. In my case, the skills I learned in sports later applied to being a military officer, naval aviator and airline pilot.
There was a selfless quality to this women’s team that is rare in today’s world of big business, big bonuses and even bigger egos. After being asked about her astonishing last-minute goal, Abby Wambach told reporters: “That is a perfect example of what this country is about.” What a refreshing response. Even Swedish-born coach Pia Sundhage attributed the team’s success to “the American attitude to find a way to win.”
With 14 million Americans out of work, politicians in a stalemate over ideological rhetoric, and Wall Street right back to its same shenanigans, the leadership lesson that we can take away from this amazing group of women is a recommitment to the American values that founded our country. Title IX provided opportunities for these women to develop their skills; we need a similar legislative push from government leaders today to get our country back on track. It’s time to stop the selfishness and bipartisan sniping and reconnect to the roots of what has made America great. We’ve got to find a way to win again—together, as a country—before it’s too late.
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