Naming Megan Rapinoe as Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year was, as Tony Kornheiser put it, "the most predictable award in the history of awards."

Rapinoe had already been named -- along with Lionel Messi on the men's side -- FIFA's Player of the Year, an award based strictly on athletic performance.

The Sports Illustrated award typically embraces a broader scope by selecting "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement."

As the magazine said, "Rapinoe challenged perceptions of her, of female athletes, of all women. She led her teammates, three months before their tent-pole tournament, to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay and to declare in advance that they would not visit the White House when they won the Cup."

(She even challenged Sports Illustrated: During her acceptance speech, she criticized the magazine for only four of the previous 66 recipients being women and for having few writers of color on staff.)

The equal-pay issue is hard to argue with.

Let's say you're a female salesperson and you generate more revenue for your employer than a male counterpart. And let's say if you hit the top sales target for your position, you can earn a bonus of $75,000, while your male counterpart can earn a bonus of $400,000.

Citing figures from the Federation's financial report, the suit claimed that even though the women's team generated almost $20 million more in revenue in 2015 than the men's team, the women earn approximately 25 percent of what their male counterparts make.

Few people would argue that sounds fair.

Which is why Rapinoe, along with U.S. national team players like Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Becky Sauerbrunn, filed a wage-discrimination action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Her broader social and political positions? Depending on your perspective, those could be easier to argue with.

But what can't be argued is her willingness to take a public stand: to use her spotlight and platform to advance social and political causes she believes in.

That's leadership. While you may not like where she's leading, she's absolutely a leader. 

Plenty of people take verbal stands. Fewer take a stand and put their efforts -- and, potentially, their careers -- behind their opinions. Fewer are willing to risk the attention, the backlash, and the potential scorn. 

When she sees a problem, Rapinoe doesn't just criticize. She tries to fix it.

That's what leaders do.

And that's why Rapinoe, along with other national team players, launched the lifestyle brand Re--inc. (The "e" in "Re" is actually backwards.)

As Fast Company notes, " ... unlike most celebrity athletes, the company won't be selling clothing emblazoned with their names or signatures. Neither the new business's name, Re--inc, nor its branding, reference the women behind it at all. ... The brand isn't about their names, but about their philosophy as players and people who embrace inclusivity and gender-neutral design."

It's impossible to predict whether the business will thrive. Making societal improvements a core business objective is admirable. Consumers increasingly use their wallets to express their beliefs and values. Even so: Starting a company that includes a social component in no way guarantees success.

But starting a business -- and building a company culture -- that embodies your beliefs? That's the only way to be successful on your terms.

And that's the only way to be an authentic business leader.

Because while no one will every agree on everything, we can all agree that saying -- and, more important, doing -- what you feel is right is not only admirable, it's the best way to live as fulfilling and successful a life as possible.

In whatever way you choose to define success.

Published on: Dec 16, 2019
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