What can we learn from Sheryl Sandberg and her book ‘Lean In’


Sheryl Sandberg was just another business executive – albeit a vastly successful one – until her 2013 book, Lean In, became a business empowerment manifesto for working women everywhere.

Sandberg’s path to success began in Washington, D.C. in August of 1969. In that month she was born into an upper middle class Jewish family as the oldest of three children. The daughter of an opthamologist and French teacher, Sandberg moved with her family to Florida at the age of two. She went on to attend North Miami Beach Senior High School where she was in the National Honor Society and graduated ninth in her class.

She went on to Harvard where she majored in economics and created a group called Women in Economics and Government with the goal of getting more women to major in government and economics. In 1991 she graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and went to work at the World Bank for two years.

Next, Sandberg went to Harvard Business School, where she graduated with an MBA in 1995. Then, when her undergraduate advisor went to work for the Clinton administration in the late 90’s, Sandberg followed him and worked in government until Republicans took over in 2001.

After leaving D.C., Sandberg moved to the Silicon Valley to take advantage of the huge tech boom. There, she signed on with Google and worked as the company’s vice president of global online sales and operations from 2001 until 2008. In 2008, Sandberg moved to Facebook, and has been working there as the Chief Operating Officer ever since.

Although Sandberg was already an unequivocal success, what made her into a household name was the release of her 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book is based on the premise that female advancement and leadership in the business world has stalled – and Sandberg offers the advice to help move it forward. The basic premise is that women should “lean in” to their careers instead of stepping back to focus on family life, thus saying no to new opportunities in the process.

In Lean In, Sandberg talks about the leadership ambition gap and the double standard in terms of how ambition is perceived in women and men. In men, ambition and success are considered good things, whereas in women those traits are viewed negatively. Sandberg writes, “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” However, Sandberg doesn’t use that information to imply that women should be less ambitious. Instead, she uses it point out that women are often held back by their fear of being viewed negatively for exhibiting ambition. She asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Answering her own question, she writes, “Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”

Sandberg also talks about the importance of staying at work and continuing to put in time when raising a family. She says, “Don’t leave before you leave.” By that, she means that women shouldn’t preemptively leave work for family. She criticizes the fact that Western culture teaches girl to expect that they may need to leave work to have children. Lean In philosophy entails working as long as you can into the pregnancy, hiring childcare to enable you to devote more time to work, finding a significant other willing to share family responsibilities equally instead of adhering to more traditional gender roles, and not leaving work for family responsibilities. Sandberg is speaking from experience in regards to the importance of not leaving work for family. She has two children, but stayed in high-ranking executive positions even while having kids – and that’s exactly the sort of thing she means by leaning in.

Essentially, the business advice that Sandberg shares is the diametric opposite of what Arianna Huffington promotes in Thrive. They are essentially incompatible philosophies, although both have been incredibly influential. However, Sandberg’s philosophy – which has many proponents who have spawned a “Lean In” movement – has generated a number of detractors as well.

One of the main criticisms has been that leaning in isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone; it really only works for women who are privileged to begin with. That is, if you don’t have money for childcare to allow you the extra time at work or if you are a single parent, you may not be able to lean in. Another criticism is that it doesn’t always work. Some women try to lean in to their careers and just fall on their faces. Literally. Like Arianna Huffington.

Both those criticisms have some validity, so it seems that “leaning in” is something that maybe isn’t for everyone. Clearly it works wonders for some, but it might not be the thing for everyone. Detractors or not, Sandberg doesn’t seem to mind – she’s too busy leaning in to her own business life to be worried about those who disagree with her ethos. The takeaway message from all this is that not everyone can lean in – but if you can, it pays off in spades.