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P&G’s Mel Healey on why not having it all is liberating

Melanie HealeyMelanie Healey
Melanie HealeyProctor & Gamble

On October 22, Melanie Healey, Procter & Gamble’s (PG) group president for North America and No. 18 on Fortune‘s 2014 ranking of the Most Powerful Women in Business, announced her retirement from the company, effective next June. The news, which came as part of an overall restructuring announcement by CEO A.G. Lafley, surprised many, who thought that Healey had a good shot at succeeding Lafley one day.

But the company is undergoing dramatic change, and Healey, who has struggled to get the once-dynamic North America region back on track, has decided to do something different (retirement, at P&G, is allowed after 25 years at the company, which Healey has completed. But she’s only 53, so don’t expect to see her in a rocking chair anytime soon).

In an email exchange with Fortune, the Brazilian executive mused on what that might be. “I firmly believe that happiness and success is not just about reaching a dream destination, but more importantly, it’s about enjoying the journey,” she says. “The past 25 years at P&G have been an amazing journey. Now, it’s time for something different.”

She says she’s considering everything from writing a book to working in a startup, but notes that it is impossible to figure out what’s next when you’re in such an intense job. “There is virtually no time to step back, reflect and consider what else you could choose to do.”

I asked Healey to offer some advice for professional women based on her long career. She directed me to a speech she gave to her alma mater, the University of Richmond, in late October, entitled “Choose to Live a Life that Matters.” There were two aspects that seemed particularly relevant.

First was the notion that authentic leadership comes from within. “Looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing you are accountable first and foremost to yourself is a choice,” she said. “And when you get really clear about who you are, this understanding will make you a more authentic leader.” For women in particular, who often feel pressured to act like leaders they see around them rather than finding their own path, this is very good advice. And as someone who has watched Healey in action for years, I can vouch for her own authenticity.

The second bit of advice surprised me. “The choice not to have it all, far from being defeatist, is extremely liberating,” she said. “Slugging through a decade of work but losing touch with your family and friends or with your community creates its own sense of failure,” she wrote.

This from a woman with a $32 billion P&L, who spends months a year on the road and yet has managed to maintain a longterm marriage and raise two kids (both currently in college)?

But when I thought about it for a while, I realized that what she was saying was profound enough to turn the whole “Lean In” debate on its head. You can have all of what YOU want, she is saying. You just can’t have everything that anyone wants—or you can try, but you won’t be happy.

Here’s hoping Healey’s next chapter gives her what she wants (but not all).

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.