Review

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

by Sheryl Sandberg

When Sheryl Sandberg chose the striking phrase “lean in” as the name for her audacious and personable memoir, subtitled “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” she literally struck a chord in some rather unlikely places. Among musicians --- if one is lucky enough to work with truly enlightened teachers, colleagues, or conductors --- the urge to “lean” into key phrases, themes or motifs conveys meaning through a wealth of interdependent artistic experiences that far transcend mere notes on paper. You learn that leaning in only works when performers become solidly rooted into foundations of confidence, technique and trust.

Believe it or not, that musical analogy has everything to do with Sandberg’s finally liberated passion to wholly re-imagine the context of working women everywhere. Her journey to “lean in” began with introspection but steadily expanded into a mission, and then a movement, to ignite the vast untapped potential of half the workforce on Earth.

"What makes LEAN IN so much more than an enjoyable, informative and deceptively smooth read are Sandberg’s frequent and powerfully credible assertions that in advocating for the true potential of professional women, she is also advocating for their male colleagues.... All in all, this is a must-read for anyone whose life work is more than just a job."

Emerging from myriad observations, anecdotes, dialogues, statistics, predictions, and a giant-sized helping of lived experience is the core truth that you can’t “lean in” to anything from the brittle edge of a chasm carved out by countless generations of gender-biased assumptions and misunderstandings. As in music, the ability of women to “lean in” and discover deeper professional and creative dimensions in their lives depends on growing strong assertive roots and support networks.

One of Sandberg’s most startling findings --- despite great strides made by the feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s --- is how many working women retreat from being truly “at the table” in corporations that could not succeed without their largely unheralded abilities.  

Sandberg, whose major career positions have included the U.S. Treasury Department, Google, and currently COO of Facebook, comes by her credentials honestly. By her own admission, she found herself trapped at various decisive points in life (job changes, relationships, pregnancies, self-care crises, aspirations, etc.) by boundaries of tradition where ability and expectations simply didn’t harmonize. Instead of raging against those boundaries, she adapted her already-polished management and marketing skills to creatively turn them inside out, changing limitations often through savvy surprise and well-informed optimism.

In fact, for much of her career as a pathfinder and respect-builder for women in corporate leadership, Sandberg has acted by example, often unconsciously inspiring and mentoring women around her, while remaining open to their shared wisdom. When she began accepting invitations to speak about female gains and challenges in the workplace, however, the seeds of LEAN IN were sown and there was no looking back.

Her story of persistence toward change is told in bold chapter headings such as: What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?, Sit at the Table (with the men), Success and Likeability, Don’t Leave Before You Leave, and The Myth of Doing It All. In just under 200 focused and meticulously researched pages (and don’t skip her more than 30 pages of richly detailed source notes, many of them vivid mini-essays in themselves), Sandberg captures every woman’s desire to seek and master her own limits, not the ones others set for her.

What makes LEAN IN so much more than an enjoyable, informative and deceptively smooth read are Sandberg’s frequent and powerfully credible assertions that in advocating for the true potential of professional women, she is also advocating for their male colleagues. She believes that an inevitable and welcome byproduct of gender balance in the workplace will be greater fulfillment for all, to the point where even the concept of gender as a limitation for anyone completely disappears from the corporate psyche. In fact, she believes the gap can be closed now, giving everyone a strong and level foundation from which we can all “lean in” and truly achieve what we were meant to be and do.

My only regret is that LEAN IN didn’t happen around 1999, when so many professional women of my generation would have taken it eagerly to heart and set about rescuing careers that had become mired in gender bias and stifling stereotypes. With all it has to say, you’d think LEAN IN would have to be a much longer book, but its greatest asset is that it’s an energetic work in progress. Reading it is just the beginning; you can follow Sandberg’s active community online through www.leanin.org, and of course there is also a LEAN IN Facebook page. All in all, this is a must-read for anyone whose life work is more than just a job.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 29, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg