REVIEW // SHERYL SANDBERG: LEAN IN

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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead might be the most talked about book of the year. At the very least, it’s easily the most-talked about book since its publication on March 11, 2013. In fact, Lean In sold more than 140k copies in its first week, and publisher, Alfred A. Knopf recently announced over 400k copies in print1.

As of March 29, 2013 – Lean In is the #1 selling book on Amazon.com. It’s also the #1 book in multiple categories including: Business, Success and Leadership. With the economy in questionable shape, it’s no wonder people continually seek help, advice, and ideas in these categories.  Adding to it’s sales is the fact that Sandberg and Lean In are also at the center of one hell of a feminist firestorm.

In Lean In, Sandberg sets out to clarify the playing field in the workplace as it applies to who’s at the top (men), how to get there (lean in) and why it’s been modus operandi for … ever (varying reasons, longer than this article or Sandberg’s book gets into). And though Sandberg attests the book is not a memoir, self-help, career management or feminist manifesto–wait, take back that last part–it “sort of” is–it clearly plays all of these roles and more. Sandberg cites the usual suspects: chauvinism and traditional corporate ladder logistics as traditional causes of this executive gender gap, but she also points the finger at women who don’t aggressively pursue executive opportunity in the same way as their male counterparts. Sandberg encourages women to jump into leadership roles, and not just passively–to get into the thick of work and life, and to stop debating whether women can “have it all.”

As a business-oriented book, there’s a lot of great advice to be considered. Take these pieces, for instance:

  • “Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if [she] is always waiting to be told what to do.”
  • “There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do.  You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”
  • “Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”
  • “One thing that helps is to remember that feedback, like truth, is not absolute.”

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Regarding Lean In as somewhat of a feminist manifesto, Sandberg goes heavy into studies and citations, proffering possibly jarring statistics like:

  • “A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential while women are promoted based on past accomplishments”
  • “A woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of being hired.”
  • “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.”

And those are just a few, and not nearly an adequate representation of the numerous figures and veritable pie charts awaiting readers. (I read the book on my iPad which indicated 67% of the book was the content of  Sandberg’s message, while the remaining 33% constituted an extended bibliography).

“If we want a world with greater equality, we need to acknowledge that women are less likely to keep their hands up. We need institutions and individuals to notice and correct for this behavior by encouraging, promoting, and championing more women. And women have to learn to keep their hands up, because when they lower them, even managers with the best intentions might not notice.”

The part of Lean In that most readers will probably enjoy (and empathize with), are anecdotal (you know, the part where real-life obstacles get in the way). The quote above can hang on its own, but it originated from a reality check for Sandberg who, after giving a speech on gender issues, followed by a Q&A, tried to conclude the session by saying she wouldn’t be taking more questions (hands down, ladies) — then continued taking questions from those who still lofted their hands in the air (hello, gentlemen!). And gets called on it by a fellow Facebook employee. Another story involves Sandberg traveling to a business conference (full disclosure: on John Donahoe’s private eBay plane) with her two small children in tow and discovering lice in her daughter’s hair. And while most of us might want to trade these blows into humility aboard a private jet, or in the midst of our high-salary jobs (or any job, for that matter) – it is what it is.

In grittier takes, Sandberg admits to crying in the office (limited, and literally on Mark Zuckerburg’s shoulder), struggling with divorce and a mid-distance marriage, and feeling like a fraud. And no, not every story is so thoughtfully placed as a key learning point. Remember the sage wisdom of ol’ John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society when he offered this indispensable nugget: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.”

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The March 7 issue of TIME featured Sandberg on its cover and included an exclusive interview with almost as much content and figures as Lean In as well as heavy praise along the lines of: “It’s probably not an overstatement to say Sandberg is embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.” Let’s just be real, that is an overstatement. And it’s these types of statements that perpetuate the burgeoning war of women.

And maybe this is the problem. Sheryl Sandberg, COO – is quickly becoming the quintessential woman of the world, well, at least in popular media. I think that’s amazing. I think we should always celebrate women (and men!) who are successful in the their industries–especially if they’ve worked their way up in any way. As a woman, seeing those shining examples of achievement are always inspiring, sometimes as much for what they’ve accomplished in their careers as their ability to contribute more significantly to whatever charities they like, to wear designer shoes if they like and ultimately, their ability to (theoretically) live a freer life.

This doesn’t mean women aren’t rebooting the feminist argument or creating a more national dialogue though. Anne-Marie Slaughter ignited the most recent debate almost a full year ago in her article in The Atlantic titled: “Why Women Can’t Have It All” and Marissa Mayer (President & CEO of Yahoo) stirred the kindles when she took a two-week maternity leave in 2012 seemingly minimizing the plight of working mothersTIME‘s Caitlin Flanagan calls Sandberg’s book “inherently dismissive“; Cognoscenti‘s Carey Goldberg blames “a rigid workplace culture that won’t let us ratchet down. It is employers who do not offer flexible alternatives that drive parents out, by offering only a binary choice between full-time-plus or the highway.” In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd argues that “[Sandberg] seems to think she can remedy social paradigms with a new kind of club — a combo gabfest, Oprah session and corporate pep talk.”

All of which kind of make you think … come on. Right?

Reading Lean In, I was reminded of a skit Tina Fey and Amy Poehler performed on Saturday Night Live during the 2008 Presidential election cycle, back when Fey was portraying former Alaska Governor and VP candidate, Sarah Palin, and Poehler, future Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential candidate (wishful thinking begins!) Hillary Clinton. In the skit, the two women are discussing, ironically, sexism in the media. Here’s a transcript of the piece:

TINA FEY / SARAH PALIN: “Just two years ago, I was a small town mayor of Alaska’s crystal meth capitol. And now I am just one heartbeat away from being President of the United States. It just goes to show that anyone can be President.”

AMY POEHLER / HILLARY CLINTON: “Anyone.”

TINA FEY / SARAH PALIN: “All you have to do is want it.”

AMY POEHLER / HILLARY CLINTON: (LAUGHS) “Yeah, you know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I should have wanted it more.” (RIPS OFF PIECE OF PODIUM)

At the heat of the firestorm, are women who are simply not the target of Sandberg’s book and who take offense to a message that a lot of women (and men) need to hear. There are plenty of women who don’t need this advice–women like Clinton (and maybe even Palin) who are already leaning in, women who already sit at the table and keep their hands raised and ARE the lone woman in industries dominated by men. Lean In doesn’t argue that you need want it more, and it’s won’t reveal the thing that will propel you to COO or beyond.

Maybe Lean In is less sit-at-the-table and more an invitation for successful female (and male) leaders to encourage other women to those same positions. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “I wish that there could be two versions of Sandberg’s book. One marketed to young women would encourage them to be more assertive. One marketed to men (and women already in leadership) would emphasize the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.”

If you read this book and the phrase “lean in” is the only thing you get from it, that’s still a hell of a piece of advice. If you’re not where you want to be in your life or your career, lean into whatever does it for you, and strive to be the best at it. That’s all Sheryl Sandberg is arguing and it’s advice worth taking.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg and the push to Lean In?

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