Leadership Library Review — Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

September 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf, 2013)

What are the big take-aways?

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook.  Closely tracking the themes of her 2010 TED Talk entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” (now approaching 3 million views),  Lean In explores – among other topics – what she calls the “ambition gap,” getting women to “sit at the table,” the importance of finding and being a mentor, why you shouldn’t “leave before you leave” if you’re having kids, what it means to “make your partner a real partner” and “the myth of doing it all.”  Sandberg’s book is a call to action; she calls on women to “lean in” to their jobs and careers and leadership opportunities in order to create an equal world.  (“A truly equal world,” she asserts on page 7 of the introduction, “would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”)

Why do I like it?

I deeply admire Sandberg’s courage to publish her personal story and her ideas with as much candor as she does.  She’s a very direct and humorous writer (with help from her co-author Nell Scovell).  I also like the fact that Sandberg is unapologetic about her biases (e.g., she admits that, back when she was a senior leader at Google, she never thought about the need for pregnant women to have reserved parking until she herself was struggling with her own first pregnancy).  Overall, I think her advice is superb for women and men leaders in the corporate sphere.

Although Sandberg’s pronounced modesty about her extraordinary accomplishments – as well as her sensitivity to diversity and inclusion – sometimes come off as stilted, my instinct is that this is less about what she really believes and possibly more about her inability to avoid a slight tone-deafness that seemed to me to subtly infuse the entire book.  One is constantly reminded that Sandberg lives an elite life (her mentor is Lawrence Summers; a heavily-featured story involves what happened when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner came to visit Facebook; and she uses her friend Marissa Meyer – the CEO of Yahoo! – as a prime example in the chapter on “Working Together Toward Equality”), so it is understandable why some of the language she uses when describing issues facing average women, or when dispensing advice to them, would occasionally sound awkward.

In what situations would this be useful?

In my opinion, Lean In would be as useful – and perhaps more so – for men who are already in the “C-Suite” (CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s, etc.) as women who are aspiring to get there.  As Sandberg powerfully points out many times throughout the book, men will benefit as much as women will from achieving an equal world, and Lean In provides the blueprint for how men leaders can engineer gender equality: encourage leadership in your wives, daughters, mothers and sisters, etc.; invite women to “sit at the table” in important meetings at your workplace; mentor women and actively sponsor their career advancement; show to successful women the same respect you would display to similarly-situated men; and be a fully 50-50 partner at home, especially in terms of child care.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For a timely collection of the latest research on women leaders – particularly in corporate life – take a look at the current issue of the Harvard Business Review (September 2013).

For a complementary (and similarly personal) approach to the issues tackled by Sandberg in Lean In, I highly recommend Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which I reviewed last summer here in the Leadership Library.  For more on how men will benefit as much as women from greater global equality, check out John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio’s The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

For a sophisticated how-to book on the practicalities of transforming organizational culture in ways that include and transcend gender considerations, I suggest Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World by Jennifer Garvey Berger (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).

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