Droppings 2: Lean In

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Book review: “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg
I have read the much discussed book “Lean In,” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and I can say it is clear that the vast majority of people bashing her have not, in fact, read the book.

I loved it. First, it is very well written, no doubt thanks to Nell Scovell, the professional writer with whom Sandberg partnered. When you read through the acknowledgements, you see that there are many people who really wanted the book to happen and who lent their time and editorial expertise to this enterprise.

I really enjoyed the book and could not put it down. Trust me, this is really high praise, because I am extremely impatient and I readily drop a book if it starts to bore me; god knows I have abandoned many more books in recent years due to sheer boredom than I have finished reading. Sandberg shares many anecdotes from her life, and feels authentic and quite vulnerable at times.

There is so much more to this book besides the “lean in” paradigm. For those of you who have somehow managed to escape all the chatter about Sandberg’s TED talk or the book, she argues that, in order to make things better for all women everywhere, there must be more women at the top, and, in order to get to the top, women have to “lean in” to their careers. She posits that women make many small choices along the way in which they don’t go for the most professionally rewarding route because they feel it is incompatible with their families, often well ahead of actually having a family or even a partner. Sandberg argues that families take time and sacrifice, but the time to step back is when the kids are there, not years ahead. Career women should keep the pedal to the metal for as long as possible, in order for the best opportunities to be available to them after they are ready to return to work. Having a rewarding and challenging job to go back to is the best way to ensure that you really want to go back after having kids and feel it’s worth it to leave them with someone else. As Sandberg says of a woman in the book, “[she] now refers to herself as a “career-loving parent,” a nice alternative to “working mom.”

The paragraph above summarizes, I feel, what almost everyone else has been arguing about in regards to Sandberg’s book. I personally agree with her, and feel too many women are holding themselves back, in addition to facing significant institutional obstacles. (There are people who disagree with the “lean in” premise, who think she has no right to say anything to anyone let alone write a book because she’s wealthy or variously privileged or simply female so how dare she be successful and/or give advice, or they think that she’s ruining her children etc. I have no intention to get into it here. Nicoleandmaggie have alink aggregator that  leads to some depressing, vitriolic comment threads elsewhere.)

Bottom line is that most people actually seem to discuss the material from Sandberg’s TED talk and basically just Chapter 7 in the book. But, there is so much other goodness in this book that you would never hear about because the loudest mouths out there don’t seem to have read it. So here’s the table of contents.

Introduction: Internalizing the Revolution
1. The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid? 
2. Sit at the Table
3. Success and Likeability
4. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
5. Are You My Mentor? 
6. Seek and Speak Your Truth 
7. Don’t Leave Before You Leave
8. Make Your Partner a Real Partner
9. The Myth of Doing It All
10. Let’s Start Talking About It
11. Working Together Toward Equality
Let’s keep talking…

Like Laura Vanderkam, I felt I wanted to underline this book on  many pages. But, I don’t like to underline books,  so I will rely on my faulty memory. Sandberg presents really nicely (with ample references throughout the book) the main issues that prevent women from reaching their potential, such as women facing the “double bind” — when women are ambitious, they are less likable, because they act agentic (stereotypically male) and thus deviate from the societal expectation that women are communal (care for others, stereotypically female). Success is positively correlated with likeability in men, but negatively in women. Sandberg lists some strategies for success, such as advocating strongly for others, which shows a woman as both competent and communal, and that this is another reason why many women advancing is a good thing because they can be each other’s advocates (apparently it worked for four female senior executives at Merrill Lynch). There is also a  wonderful analogy that, for women or anyone else who wants to have a life, the career path to the top is not a ladder, which would imply only one way up and really waiting for a long time, staring at someone’s butt, but instead a jungle gym, where you can get to the top via a multitude of different routes.

The chapter on mentorship (Chapter 5) was a real eye-opener for me. Sandberg says that women have received the information that having mentors (people to advise you) and sponsors (people who will champion you) is important, but  “…Searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming… Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

“Studies show that mentors select proteges based on performance and potential. Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback…” Graduate students, take note.

“We need to stop telling [women] “Get a mentor and you will excel.” Instead, we need to tell them, “Excel and you will get a mentor.””

“Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stress jobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in the day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions. Most people in the position to mentor are quite adept at problem solving. Give them a problem to solve.” This part really resonated with me, because, in the past, I have certainly been guilty of expecting too much from my mentors and often felt disappointed.

In addition to being smart and driven, Sandberg had mentors, luck, and help along the way, all of which she readily acknowledges. She comes across as honest, warm, and wise, and the book is both funny and inspiring. Pick up a copy and enjoy!


  1. I went into the book expecting to want to defend it against its detractors but found I agreed with them in several respects. I concur on your points above and thought the book had merit, but two things bothered me.

    First, the outlook was that Harvard Business School extreme extroversion and elite go-go-go type of leaning in. This introvert just wanted to go home and huddle up with a good book. My favorite example of Sandberg’s somewhat blinkered privilege was when she noted that she and her husband (and I do feel horribly sorry for her with his untimely death) solved their two-body problem by having him move his company to the Bay area, thereby creating a whole new trickle-down set of new two-body problems among his employees, a point I noted but she never did.

    Second, while she notes some of the double-binds women face in their work, she doesn’t provide many practical solutions on how to address them. I much preferred “What Works for Women at Work” because they identified the challenges AND asked professional women how they solved them.

  2. ‘I much preferred “What Works for Women at Work” because they identified the challenges AND asked professional women how they solved them.’

    …AND provided the results of high quality randomized controlled experiments that pretty unequivocally showed that the standard “women need to act more like men” advice to be completely wrong.

  3. I thought the book was rather boring. I agree with all that she is saying of course, but I didn’t think it was particularly novel or ground-breaking.

    A lot of what she is saying can be derived by someone with a fair amount of psychological insight. I am guessing a major reason why she is so successful is that she has a lot of such insight.

  4. Most insights, especially of the life-hack kind, are just plain common sense. But only in hindsight or after someone has actually articulated them.
    As someone said somewhere on the web, common sense is not actually all that common.

  5. Similar to you, I also enjoyed reading “Lean In” and a lot of what she says made sense to me. Only now I see all those decisions that I took early on and how they are affecting where I am today and where I want to be.

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