Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” came out last March, and has won praise and ire ever since. Some love it for its call to ambition. Others take issue with its focus on internal barriers to women’s success rather than institutional ones. And a particularly vocal throng savage Sandberg herself–her privilege, her preternatural stores of energy and her presumption that her rich girl ways are relevant for the rest of us.
“Sheryl Sandberg is hazardous to women,” wrote Andrea Peyser in the New York Post during the book’s launch. “Those who follow Sheryl’s lead are bound to be disappointed–bitter, broke, unemployed, and perpetually single.”
“Sheryl, have you ever stopped to consider that all this ‘leaning in’ is ruining life for the rest of us?,” echoed Rosa Brooks a year later in a Washington Post piece, titled “Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg).”
Me? I liked the book at first. I thought its recommendations were practical (if not revolutionary) and its author was clever and well intentioned.
But as the groundswell of haters rose, I gave “Lean In” a second read, and fell in love. Sandberg did what a first-time author should do: She announced a destination, stayed in her lane and arrived there without too many pit stops or detours. She observed a dearth of women in senior leadership in every industry, offered some straightforward explanations of why that’s happened and offered some advice to those who want to take some personal initiative to reverse the trend.
Folks who wanted a memoir, a self-help book or a career-management guide can be disappointed in what she delivered but they can’t claim to have been misled. Within ten pages, she announces that the book’s a “sort of feminist manifesto.” Manifestos are more declaration than detail, so it’s safe to assume that a “sort of” manifesto will be just as vague.
Even those who long for sock-it-to-The-Man invective about the institutional blockades to women’s advancement at work must acknowledge that Sandberg’s not qualified to tell that story (yet). If she came out of the gate with a book of concrete corporate or public policy recommendations for bringing gender parity to corporate America, she would have had about 300 readers and zero credibility.
I like to read books by people who know what they are talking about. Don’t you? Until Sandberg transforms Facebook into a model of diversity, equity and inclusion (which I hope she will), I don’t want to read 200 pages of fairy tales from her on that subject. She’s trying to launch a social movement from a corporate perch, but she’s no dummy. She’s an executive, not a scholar, and has wisely chosen to hammer away at an insidious social problem from a position of strength.
Publishing thoughts on how to thrive as a woman in business amid significant workplace discrimination and inflexibility is well within the billionaire executive’s authority. That’s a book with teeth, written by a master of the disarming corporate-ladder-climbing smile, and many ambitious women would do well to mark her words.
Her central premise is that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers, and that resonated with me. After reading “Lean In” the first time, I could clearly pinpoint critical junctures when I made choices about my work and my life without fully grasping their long-term consequences. And in many cases without even acknowledging that there was a choice at all.
I’m guilty as charged when it comes to making a slew of career-limiting choices. As soon as I got engaged, I narrowed job searches to cities near my then-fiance. Once married, I settled too quickly into a trailing-spouse mindset. After having a child, I became a maternal gatekeeper at home and hoarded household responsibilities.
Perhaps that’s why I had a positive but not effusive reaction to the book at first. I felt like it was too late for me to benefit from its wisdom. Forewarned is forearmed, but I’m in my 30s and already committed the missteps outlined in the “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” chapter. I had opted out of the traditional workforce so evidently that a local commission seeking my help wasn’t ashamed to list my title as “Shaka Smart’s wife” on its contact list. (Infuriated, I declined that inept invitation to serve.)
But on the second read, I focused less on the symptoms of leaning back and more on the characteristics of leaning in. I realized that though my career path has been far from traditional, it hasn’t exactly been laid back either. I’ve hopped from investment banking to PR, to journalism and entrepreneurship, to wifedom, to motherhood, to volunteering and philanthropy. Through the years, there have been periods of intense focus and great accomplishment despite the absence of a high-profile leadership role.
“Lean In”’s message is that such a jumble of activity is fine if that’s what you want, but if you actually want a top job you’ve got to be extremely intentional in its pursuit. Leading a country or a company (yes, Sandberg urges women to aim high) doesn’t happen by accident, given all of the social, cultural and even biological obstacles to staying fully committed to the workforce.
One personal takeaway is that in order to attain my biggest career dreams, given my particular circumstances, I have to make some tough choices about what I’m not going to do at all, what I’m not going to do well and how I am going to make those choices work for my family. I have to draw the lines. My work, volunteering and family will make endless demands on me, but I have to exert control and make conscious decisions about what I’m going to do, with what intensity and for how long.
Another idea I’ll carry with me is that if a top job is what I crave, I’m not just doing myself a disservice if I don’t go for it. I’m missing a huge opportunity to make the world a better place for women who don’t have the educational and economic opportunities that I have. “While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry,” Sandberg noted in a Barnard College commencement address. “This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect our world, women’s voices are not heard equally.” I hear you.
The Sandberg haters like Brooks who say the book compels women to play Superwoman at home and at work clearly missed the chapters on “Making Your Partner a Real Partner” and “The Myth of Doing It All.” “Counterintuitively, long-term success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us,” Sandberg argues. “The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately–to set limits and stick to them.”
In short, each of us has to put our big girl panties on, define what we want and go for it, knowing there must be boundaries and there will be sacrifices. Unlike some disgruntled readers, I don’t expect Sheryl Sandberg (or anyone else for that matter) to write a field guide detailed enough to instruct me in the intricacies of managing my own personal life and career. Yet I appreciate the subjective examples and insights she offers. They reveal something universal about making one’s way in the world. Ultimately, it’s my job to author the details of my particular work and will to lead.
A year after the publication of the book that launched a thousand women’s support groups, a stock photography collection and a screenplay, I got it. I’m leaning in… my way.