April 15, 2013 Practice Points

Sheryl Sandberg Wants You to Be Yourself, and Lean In

By Emily Wessel Farr

Sheryl Sandberg, COO and Number Two at Facebook, starts her book by thanking her parents, for teaching her that “anything was possible,” and her husband, for “making everything possible.” This dedication might not strike one as unusual, but when reading Lean In, you begin to note its importance. Sheryl Sandberg, like all of us, is a product of her environment. And her environment, as she acknowledges with gratitude and humility, is chock-full of support.

Lean In, a follow-up from Sandberg’s now-famous 2010 TED lecture, is a short but sweet thing––a paper and glue version of its author. In its first pages, Sandberg forewarns that it is limited in scope; not a memoir, not a career guide, not a self-help book. In fact, Sandberg doesn’t care what the book is, but rather, what it does. Lean In teaches several lessons, and this is the first: be ambitious, unapologetically ambitious, in the way you choose to live your life. Whether in family, friendship, career, volunteerism, or book writing, put 100 percent into those things you pursue.

Sandberg’s book navigates women’s challenges from the playground to the corner office by focusing on what we, as women, internalize along the way. While she acknowledges the multitude of institutional barriers that still exist, she focuses her book on how we hold ourselves back. This is a focus from which we all benefit. Institutional barriers are very real, but they are also rigid and long-standing. We, on the other hand, are human. We are flexible––and hopefully not as old as the Old Boys Club. When we face our internal barriers, we look in the mirror. There is nobody to report, no member of congress to call. We simply must, as Sandberg urges, “seek and speak our truth.”

To do so, Sandberg urges us to be ourselves––even at work. She reminds us that a key factor in both professional and personal success is being liked; and nobody likes a fraud. In rather dry fashion, she observes: “I couldn’t deny being a woman; even if I tried, people would still figure it out.” So, over the years, and with much hesitation, Sandberg embraced her true self. She is refreshingly vulnerable as she describes who the real Sheryl is. She is a woman, who has cried at work, recently, in front of her boss (read: Zuckerberg). She is an employee who has withstood insults, sexism, and Queen Bees. She is a mother of two who has lost more than one Mommy War. It turns out, COOs are just like us!

Authenticity is not always welcome. Sandberg acknowledges that there is a lingering discomfort with women in leadership roles. In a frightening statistic, even among the youthful Millennial men and women, only twenty percent want to emulate the career of their female boss. And this is where Sandberg urges us to lean a little bit farther. If we want women to reach parity with men, ambition is not enough. We also need encouragement. “Everyone,” she writes, “needs to get more comfortable with female leaders––including female leaders themselves.” By encouraging women, including ourselves, we achieve the freedom that allows us to lead in our own voice. And when we are truly ourselves, we are more likeable, and we are more successful. And then, out of nowhere, she uses the “F” word.

Sandberg calls being a feminist a “distinguished label,” and hopes that both men and women will embrace it. And this is what feminism looks like to Sandberg: While her career features grueling hours and inconvenient travel, she leaves at 5:30 p.m. (when in town) to have dinner with her family. She prioritizes being a good friend, mother, daughter, sister, and wife. Her husband is a trusted confidant and her biggest supporter, as she is for him. He also enjoys a fulfilling career. She wholeheartedly supports her friends, male and female, who decide to raise their children full-time––some for a year, others for a lifetime. She recognizes and praises the important work in the boardroom, as well as the PTA. She calls a truly equal world one where “women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”

Sandberg’s Acknowledgements section reads like a speech to the Academy, with a long list of friends and family who support her. Sandberg is the richest woman in town, but more like George Bailey, not Soros. She is a product of her environment, one where she found support as she gradually leaned in to life, as herself. She wants the same for you. The cynics will write that Sandberg can afford to be herself. She is, after all, Sheryl Sandberg. The cynics will have made her point for her. Sandberg describes women not supporting other women as “heart-breaking.” What would she call women not supporting women who are supporting women?

And that is Sandberg’s final lesson: be kind. Though she doesn’t devote a chapter to the concept, she embodies it. She does not judge other women for their choices; she does not order them from best to worst decision. Her outlook is incredibly positive, gracious, and bubbling over with respect. She is the leader of a new kind of women’s movement, as she recently declared on 60 Minutes; one where women give each other the benefit of the doubt, just like so many have given her. Sandberg isn’t advocating a scorched earth policy when it comes to women’s rights. She is asking for a truce. We’re all trying our best, after all.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, Lean In, Sandberg

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