HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Megan Rapinoe is known for her ability to perform under pressure on the soccer field — or football field, if you’re outside the U.S. In 2019, she led the U.S. women’s team to the World Cup championship. But Rapinoe’s leadership extends beyond making big goals in high stakes games. She has embraced her role as team captain AND as an advocate for causes she believes in – like gender pay equity. In this episode, you’ll learn how Rapinoe gradually grew into her leadership role on the U.S. women’s team, how personal relationships with her teammates figure in her approach to leadership, and what she does to keep her teammates motivated – especially after hard losses. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in June 2020. Here it is.tag:audio.hbr.org,2023-4-21:on–leadership.s1.0016
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard. Here in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world, sports have been on hiatus for a while due to the Covid-19 crisis. But in regular times, professional athletics serve as not only entertainment in our societies, but also as a way to learn about teamwork, leadership and how to perform under pressure. Our guest today, Megan Rapinoe, cemented her place in soccer history – for football history for those outside the U.S. – at the 2019 Women’s World Cup with some critical goals, including some clutch penalty kicks.
ANNOUNCER: Rapinoe ready. To fire this in. And it went all the way in!
ALISON BEARD: She led her team to a championship and won the Golden Boot. She’s also been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and gender equity. Back in 2016, she took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans. And she’s helped lead her team’s lawsuit, demanding equal pay for female players, against the U.S. Soccer Federation. I had a chance to speak with Megan late last year, five months after her World Cup win, at the Massachusetts Conference for Women. Here’s our conversation.
ALISON BEARD: Why don’t we start by talking about performance under pressure? You had an amazing World Cup, penalty kicks, more goals after that. The President tweeting you during the whole time. How did you become so clutch?
MEGAN RAPINOE: I don’t know to be honest. I think a little bit of it is just like my natural inclination. I’m a pretty confident person and luckily don’t deal with a lot of like you know, anxiety or anything. But I think a lot times we put so much pressure on ourselves. We’re constantly in the pressure cooker, whether it’s our own self doing in training, or whatever it is, and the team has been so successful for so many years, but I think also that is the expectation of perfection. So that’s sort of always our goal. So, it’s kind of like if you made it to the World Cup on the Women’s National Team, if you’re a starter on the World Cup as a Women’s National Team player, I mean you’ve gone through the gauntlet. So it’s like, kind of by the time you get there you’re sort of well prepared for it. And also like, I love it. I love big games. My like nightmare is to play in front of 2500 people, especially now that I’ve played in these big games. I see myself as an entertainer along with an athlete. Probably more of an entertainer than an athlete. I think I resonate with that a little bit more. So I feel like I just revel in those moments. Having the crowd be what it is. Being like in the spotlight when so often women sports is not in the spotlight. So to be in the World Cup in a moment like that with all these crazy fans and it’s fun in those moments and it’s like if you miss, I don’t know. Like if you miss a penalty, if you miss a shot, you missed it. You can’t go back. You can’t do anything. You can just try to not make the same mistake twice. But I’ve lost a lot in my career. I’ve won a lot in my career. You kind of take it sort of all with the good. And I think particularly having the success that I’ve had in my career, I realize it’s really not all about that. It’s not about the winning. Oftentimes you win these games and you’re like OK. Well then what? It really kind of is about the process and the journey and the people you’re with and getting better every day and I feel like you just kind of take it with a grain of salt and realize that I get to play soccer in front of 50, 60, 70,000 people and millions watching in the world. That’s an incredible stage to be on, so I kind of like it.
ALISON BEARD: When you have had setbacks, being sidelined by injuries, big losses, missed opportunities, how do you recover?
MEGAN RAPINOE: I think it’s really important to allow yourself to feel in that moment. My first major, major one was 2011 World Cup. We were literally winning with two minutes left in the game and we ended up letting in a late goal and we lost the penalty kicks, and that was just like devastating. It was what are you going to do about it? You can’t go back. So I think for me just like letting yourself feel, like get your ugly cries out in the shower, or whatever it is, and then just try not to make the same mistake twice. Just kind of enjoy the journey. There’s always going to be another game. We had the Olympics the following year that we ended up winning. It’s sports. You’re not going to win every single game or have the best performance of your life. And if there’s injuries, it’s like that’s an occupational hazard. So you can sit and dwell and like you know, be like frumpy for the entirety of your injury, or you can just get on with it and sort of find other things to fill your time and do your rehab, and kind of do whatever it is. But I think that’s just kind of life. Like just because I’m an athlete, or we’re like in this public thing doesn’t mean we don’t struggle and do the same things that everybody else does. You’re going to have good times, you’re going to have bad times. It’s more about kind of how you deal with it while you’re in it and just, I guess like not taking it too seriously either. Like OK, we lost the World Cup Final. Like that’s not the biggest deal in the world. Like in our sport, yes, but really in life it’s just like you know, it’s just one more thing.
ALISON BEARD: So you have definitely emerged as the clear leader of the team. You’re the captain, but you’re also A) the star right now, after your performance in the World Cup, but also just someone who’s pushing everyone forward. How did you grow into that role?
MEGAN RAPINOE: Growing is a great way to say it. It definitely was a process of getting in, you know, oftentimes in the national teams the captains and leaders are sort of someone more in the veteran group, and part of that is because you come on the team and you’re young and you’re like, oh my God. This is insane. All these other players have been here for so long and try to learn from them. Obviously I had really great mentors in the players that came before. But I think I kind of started to realize the power that I did have, and then really kind of making a conscious decision, probably like 2016, 17 of like, I need to take on more – not only for myself, to challenge myself because I think it has held me accountable in a way that I wasn’t accountable before. Just to myself and to my teammates. And also just like, to be honest it’s a little bit of Groundhog’s Day in professional sports. I’m like OK, I’m in my 10th year, I’m turning, you know, it’s kind of like the same thing, so emotionally and intellectually it can get a little mundane and I feel like this is a way for me to really challenge myself and expand myself in that way. And then I think I do have a particular charisma and trust within the team. I’ve always been a team first kind of player. I’ve never been the best player and I’m not even sure that I am the best player on the team, but I certainly carry a lot of weight and I think that as long as I can do that in a positive way then I can have a really big impact on the team ultimately. Like I want to win. I want to be successful. But I want everyone else to do it with me and I want to do it with them. So I feel like – and oftentimes in sports too it’s like so archaic and backwards, and like just like four decades behind. It’s like when we create this environment where everybody feels seen and heard, and everyone feels confident, and everyone feels like they have a place within the team. And if a more senior player can be the one setting that example, than the whole structure and the environment changes within that.
ALISON BEARD: So one of the most prominent leadership roles you’ve taken is in this spearheading this push for gender equity in soccer. So tell me about why you made that decision and how you persuaded your teammates to come along with you.
MEGAN RAPINOE: Obviously there’s certain people that speak more in the media more, or names are on the law suits, or whatever. This has always been, you know, dating back generations to be frank. This has always been a team fight. We’ve always made every single decision with the whole group in mind, or with the entire group which can be very difficult at times. You get 30 people or 25 people on a phone call or in a room, or whatever it is, but we really want to get the best out of the whole thing for everyone. So, I think again, it’s like if my part to add to the whole thing is to be the talking piece of it, or be the mouthpiece than that’s just like my job in it. Because other people are like literally riding the structure of our CBA, or the ones that are kind of like the architects of our strategy and philosophy and all of that. And yeah, I get like more of the attention and you know, even personally, more of the accolades for it, but it really is an entire team process. And then sometimes it’s like being the louder one and like in some ways the more dominate one. Always trying to be conscious of be dominate, but do it in the way that everybody wants. Don’t just like do it for yourself. So, kind of trying to gauge the whole group and then bring everyone along with you is a little bit of a challenge, because everyone has their own perspective. But I think we do a really good job of, especially behind closed doors, like keeping everyone accountable and challenging everyone, and making sure that then when I go speak, or when Alex goes to speak we’re normally out in the media. We’re speaking on behalf of the group always.
ALISON BEARD: One aspect of this that I think will really resonate with our readers is the fact that with our listeners is the fact that it’s not just about pay, it’s also about resources. It’s about marketing and training and development. And I think that’s an issue that women in corporate America face too.
MEGAN RAPINOE: It’s mostly about all of that stuff. Obviously the pay. I think pay is how we say that we validate people in our society or whatever. So that’s like kind of the hot button issue, but we’ve been saying for a long time, you cannot have a conversation about compensation until you have a conversation about investment in the youth programs, and in the medical, and in the high performance, and in sports marketing and in the branding of the team, and in the ticket sales, and in like the sponsorships. Like everything. So, it’s like yeah, you can say that the men have on average more attendance than the women. But it’s like if you have 10 people were on ticket sales for the men, and one person working on ticket sales for the women, then like this is not a fair conversation. So in order to actually get to a meaningful and smart conversation about compensation, everything else has to be equal. Then we can get to the point to say, OK. Now the market is set and everything is equal and the decades of gender discrimination have been equaled out, and now we can talk about compensation. But until then, it’s like that’s such an incomplete way to speak about it.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. You became well known as an activist when you decided to kneel in support of Colin Kaepernick, in support of racial justice. So, tell me why you made that decision and how you reacted to the backlash.
MEGAN RAPINOE: The decision honestly came very easy and very simply to me. I watch the news. I’m an avid watcher of SportsCenter and just a reader of the news and I try to keep up on what’s happening in the world. Seeing Colin speak, seeing what he was speaking about, we’d you know, just come through an incredibly violent summer. There had been, 2016, I think there had been five super high profile murders of people of color by police. The five police officers in Dallas were snipered down. So we’d just come through this really crazy summer, so it was like, it’s happening, obviously. We’ve massive incarceration. Like anybody’s who says this is not happening, it’s just like, you know, willfully blind. So, knowing all of that is happening, being, have been in the position being a gay woman, or gay athlete is like hey, I don’t need you to understand everything that I’m going through and I don’t need you to be gay to understand, like I need your allied-ship and I need everybody to get onboard with this. So for me it was like OK. This is something tangible that I can do. I thought as a white athlete it was also really important to show support in that way. I think so often people kind of shy away when it’s not literally their skin in the game. But like actually if you look at all the letters and intersectionality, like it is all of our skin in the game, it’s all the same thing to me. So, I just felt like this was something that I could help with. I honestly thought a lot more athletes would get involved. Certainly a lot more white athletes would get involved. How did I deal with the backlash? I remember this very, it was very difficult. Not from like a, I mean from a personal stand, but not from like oh did I do the right thing, or whatever. I never wavered in that. I’ve never wavered in that. I feel you know, even more solidified in my decision now than I ever have. But wow, I mean people were a big mad about it. They were just like, really, really, really upset and obviously the conversation got twisted in so many different ways, and people saying I’m leveraging this for myself, or unpatriotic, or all of these things. I tried to just kind of weather it. I mean obviously personally it was hard in ways. I didn’t get dropped by any sponsors, but I didn’t have any new sponsorships. I didn’t play again for the national team or put the shirt on until, you know, effectively the rule was made you had to stand. They’re denying that, but it’s like pretty obvious. But also like, the people who I care about, the voices who I cared about their opinions were very supportive. Obviously the people around me, very close to me, but activists and Colin and other athletes that have kneeled. And social justice people, and like people who are in the trenches and just understanding how important that was to have the allyship, but also just to say it, like to say yes, I see you and I hear you, and I believe you. Like I have not experienced racial injustice or racial profiling. But I don’t have to, to say that you have, or to believe you, or to understand that it’s actually happening. So, it’s like yeah. It was hard. But also it’s much less hard than being racially profiled your whole life, so.
ALISON BEARD: When you talked to corporate leaders now that you have such a platform about what they can do to promote inclusivity in their organizations, especially for their LBGTQ employees. What do you tell them? What advice do you give?
MEGAN RAPINOE: I mean one thing I always say is that you have to set the environment prior to someone already being in the environment. Like they need it before. Like you look at the NFL. I don’t think any NFL owner would be like no, we don’t want gays on our team. Clearly they don’t and they’re not very welcoming to it and they’re not setting up the environment prior. So even if it’s just language or it’s a training program that you go through, but then I think also in sort of the practical like, what are your hiring practices? How diverse is your staff? How diverse is the people that work in your office? Do you have any diversity training courses? Who do you do business with? All these things like signal to people whether you’re safe or not. Clearly people don’t feel safe in a lot of environments. So, I think the proactivity of the people in the majority is like the really important thing, especially if you’re talking about CEOs or the executive committee. Like how do you speak to people and what does the committee you know, what does the Executive Suite look like? Is it all people that look exactly the same? Because that’s not going to signal to other people that there’s space for them to be there.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I’d love to get back to team leadership. How do you motivate your fellow players? This is a group of stars, people who have been the best at what they do forever and know how to play. So, what do you do to get them going, to bring them back when they’re feeling down?
MEGAN RAPINOE: I think it really is about cultivating a personal relationship with those players. And it’s not always, like I’m not best friends with all the players on my team. You know, I’m obviously better friends with some people than others. Some of that’s just age. Like I’m over a decade over some of these players. But in that specific sense, it’s about understanding, do I need to be a person that’s going to get into someone a little bit and be like this isn’t good enough? Or is that going to crush someone? Especially coming from me. Like I have to understand if I’m a decade older than these players, like they literally grew up watching me play. And I grew up watching these other players play and then having that experience. So, what do players actually need? Because it really, it’s like leadership style really isn’t about having one style, it’s about being shifty and giving other people what they need because ultimately the best thing is that everybody is confident and comfortable. So then they can just do the thing that they’re good at. Obviously this team is ridiculous and everybody’s amazing and they really don’t need any motivation, but if people are low on confidence or the coach isn’t giving them what they need, or they’re not playing, whatever, then like just meet them sort of where they are and understand what is going to get the best out of those players, and give them that. Like if, I don’t need to be the player that’s going to yell at everyone. If someone needs that fine, but I don’t really care what you need, I just need to know what it is so then we can have that relationship going back and forth.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Who are some of the best coaches or player/coaches that you’ve worked with and what did you learn from them?
MEGAN RAPINOE: The really secure and confident and honest ones are the best. It’s like, it’s tough with our group too. I mean we’re a group of very elite, talented, confident women and if there’s blood in the water then it’s bad news. I think probably in the corporate structure and the business world that’s the same way. I mean our new coach Vlatko Andonovski, I had him for two years in Seattle. He’s just a down to earth guy. Like he’s just chill and he’s very secure in who he is. But he’ll give it to you very straight, but it’s like he’ll also tell you like wow, that was amazing. So there’s that good balance. A little humor never hurts. Like we’re in an obviously a sort of high pressure environment and especially all this stuff off the field. It can get very serious, so injecting a little humor into that. Mark Krikorian was one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had. He works at Florida State for a long time. He’s the head coach there. He just was like honest and secure with himself. I think that’s probably the most important thing is to be secure with yourself because ultimately at the end of the day we’re just people and we just have relationships. So, if you’re bringing other sort of BS into it, then you’re not going to get the best out of someone and people understand that right away. And then it’s like you’re kind of talking about things, but you’re really not talking what we should be talking about and so everything else just kinds of get in the way. So, for me someone who’s brave and sort of willing to be honest and speak about that, but I think that comes from a place of security.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So you seem incredibly secure in yourself. Confident that you know yourself. So this brash authenticity which is great. I mean brash in the best way. Where does it come from?
MEGAN RAPINOE: Oh gosh. I do think a little bit was you know, born in a confident sense with a flair for the dramatic in the entertaining side of me. I also think that, it’s like I almost didn’t grow up in regular society because I grew up around all of these other super confident, very successful, powerful women in my team. So, when we go to bounce ideas off each other, or even just sort of the unsaid feedback that you got, it’s always kind of like is this too crazy and everyone’s like no, not really. This is just us. Should we file this lawsuit three months before we go to the World Cup? Yep, probably. And so we kind of like allow ourselves that space to just sort of be however you are and obviously I’m very lucky to be on an incredible team that wins a lot. So we get to have positive feelings about ourself a lot I think in our job, and I think too it’s just like, being a public figure in whatever sort of way that it is, I really don’t care about that. I care about what my mom says and what my sister says and like what, my partner Sue says and what my teammates say about me, because I know they’re going to give it to me real, because they don’t care if I’m famous or not. Like no one that I really, really love cares about that so I feel like I have this kind of like, honest feedback loop, too honest sometimes. I’m like I don’t need this mom. Like this morning, she was like you look really tired. I’m like I am tired mom.
ALISON BEARD: Oh, that’s the worst thing you can say to someone.
MEGAN RAPINOE: I know. I’m like I am tired. Thank you. But I think too, just like I don’t take it too seriously. I get to play soccer for a living. That’s amazing. I get the incredible privilege of being where I am now. Being able to stand on this platform that so many other people have helped to build. And so just trying to take it all in with a grain of salt and like I’m no better than anyone else. Like OK, I’m good at soccer. That doesn’t really mean anything. We’re all in this world together and everyone’s just trying to do the best they can. Everybody works hard. Everyone ultimately is kind of trying to do the same thing. So, I don’t really take it too seriously or think that I’m better than anyone else.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So you talk a lot about your family, your conservative parents, the conservative town you grew up in, but how did that upbringing effect your career decisions and the way you approach your life?
MEGAN RAPINOE: It’s interesting. I honestly, I’m like are you guys sure you’re conservative? I’m just not like, I know you’re voting that way, but I think you’re ticking the wrong box. You know, I grew up in a really open, loving, like gender roles my family were totally equal. My mom worked nights. My dad worked during the days. He’s a construction worker. My mom’s a waitress. So they both do everything. Yardwork, like housework, cooking, picking the kids up, driving us everywhere. They both work. Like it’s just, I don’t know. To me that’s sort of like shared gender role was totally normal, so in that sense. The other stuff like I mean obviously I’m gay, so I didn’t really, we didn’t talk about it a lot, but it was never spoken of negatively. And then once I kind of figured out I was gay, I was like oh, OK. This is who I am and then going back to Redding, like everyone knows me. So that was like, OK, we’re a little unsure about the gay, but also we know you, so that sort of trumps the not knowing about the gay and it kind of normalized it for them. I mean everything else, I don’t know. I mean I think I was just exposed to the world at a very young age, even before I left for college. I had gone to Mexico City for soccer and I had gone to Bangkok and other cities in Thailand. I’d gone to Europe and travelled around the country and seen other people from around the country. So, I think I just had a little bit more of expansive world view than maybe some people did and I went to school in Portland. So, it’s certainly been harder with the kneeling for sure and some of the racial divisions and now obviously everything is divided. So, that’s a little bit difficult, but I also feel like I’m not ashamed to be from Redding. But like I am who I am because of those people. I’m in those people and they’re in me. All the people that I grew up with and all my parent’s friends and people who they work with, whatever. So, I’m sort of, I feel like uniquely American in that way and like it’s just as much a part of the American fabric in the very traditional American dream sense as everyone else. My family’s like wild. We’re super loving. I have a brother whose you know, addicted to drugs and has had so many issues. Like I have family members who are in the military. We’re working class. I’m who I am. It’s just kind of like this is what it means to like be American in our society, I guess. You have the ability to be whoever you want. So, for me they’re not at odds with each other at all. I think that it’s all sort of part of my story and I don’t shy away from any of that. If anything, I feel like it’s given me such a better perspective in a more holistic perspective of what it means to be American in this country and informs the way that I speak about things a lot.
HANNAH BATES: That was professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe – in conversation with Alison Beard on the HBR IdeaCast. If you liked this episode, check out HBR IdeaCast wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, be sure to subscribe to HBR at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me, Hannah Bates. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.