This book has garnered quite a bit of media attention since it first hit the shelves last March. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 25 weeks and displayed prominently at almost every bookstore. The dust jacket proclaims it “an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth” for women in the workforce. As I mentioned earlier this week, I recently resigned my commission after serving for five years as a Naval Officer. The Navy put me through school and I paid back the time as a Surface Warfare Officer stationed in Norfolk, VA. I completed two deployments—one on a Destroyer and the other on an Aircraft Carrier. If you can find a more “traditionally male” work environment, let me know. So a book aimed at promoting equality in the workforce? Sign me up!
However—and this is a big however—I was skeptical. As a woman in the military, I experienced first-hand just about every sort of gender bias imaginable. When I first started at my commissioning program, some people told me that I didn’t belong there. Others asked me why on earth I would want to go there. I had people tell me that I was “too pretty” to be in the Navy. (Still not sure what they thought I should look like because no one looks nice wearing a baggy uniform waking up for their shift at 1:00 in the morning.) It was my first experience with gender-based expectations and it wasn’t pretty. I thought that someone needed to make sure that all of these old-fashioned thinkers knew they were living in the 21st Century. I was looking for someone like Sheryl Sandberg.
Nine years later, after I completed my service commitment and started the process to separate from the military, I got just as much “feedback,” except this time it was from the other perspective. People told me that as a successful woman, I should stay in the Navy. They told me that the Navy needed women leaders and that the female sailors needed someone that they could emulate. I even had one person tell me that I was obligated to stay in the military to fulfill some theoretical promise that I had made to the women that paved the way for my entrance into the Armed Forces. Instead of being criticized for working, I was now being criticized for leaving the workforce. The same people that condemned society for forcing women into traditionally feminine roles were now trying to force me into a traditionally masculine role. Do you mean that the past four years at a Service Academy and five years on Active Duty wasn’t enough for these people???
I wasn’t sure I wanted the same criticism from Sheryl Sandberg but, remembering the very real criticism I received when first entering the military, I decided to give this book a chance. The first few chapters were loaded with statistics and anecdotes about how women are underrepresented in the workforce and that “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes” (p. 7). I have to admit that I almost put the book down after the first chapter concluded with “we move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in” (p. 11). But I pushed on, hoping that I would find something a little bit later in the book that was more palatable to someone who is choosing to lean out. And I am glad that I did. Once I got past my intitial resistance to what seemed like a “women-should-rule-the-world” message, I realized that Sandberg’s prevailing message is that everyone should lean into their chosen path in life and not let society, others, or even themselves limit possibilities.
If you are just picking up this book, I recommend skipping ahead to Chapter 4 and reading from the perspective of an employee looking to improve their own leadership potential. Not a female or male employee, just one interested in professional growth. The second half of the book was full of little pearls of wisdom from Sandberg, someone that has achieved a high level of professional success, independent of gender. The most significant morsel that I took from this book was in a passage detailing management training given by Fred Kofman. Sandberg writes, “I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth)” (p. 79). I think that this simple sentence effectively illustrates the crucial foundation for a good professional relationship: communication. But not just emailing, memo-ing, or even speaking face-to-face. Exchanging information does not always constitute communicating. It must be authentic and genuine, where both parties are acknowledged as having something valuable to offer, even if they don’t agree. When everyone knows that they are valuable to their organization and that their opinion matters, they are more likely to speak up and to really invest their best time and talent. Not only does the organization benefit, so do all of the other workers who are now able to collaborate to produce the best work.
The book goes on to offer other professional lessons, many of which apply to working men as well as women. “Don’t leave before you leave” (Ch. 7) tells employees to bring their very best to work everyday so that when or if they eventually consider leaving the workforce, it is a choice, not a necessity. “Make your partner a real partner” (Ch. 8) discusses the importance of sharing responsibilities at home. While always sound advice, regardless of who is or is not working outside of the home (no one likes to pick dirty socks off the floor, even if they are the traditional “homemaker”), I think that this issue is less prevalent in my generation. Many of my friends divide domestic responsibilities by skill set. Who cooks? The partner that makes better food, of course. Who mows the grass? The one that gets it done the fastest. Who picks up groceries? The one that passes the market on his/her way home from work. With the fast pace of life these days, maybe we’ve just become necessarily pragmatic.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in improving their relationship with their coworkers, bosses, or clients. While it is pretty heavy on the “pro-woman” rhetoric, it still has a lot to offer that can be applied across all spectrums of the office. Not all differences between coworkers are the result of gender stereotypes; many others exist as well. Race, religion, even sports team affiliation (not kidding- I’ve seen it) can influence how people are perceived and treated. The lesson from Lean In is this: don’t let anyone’s unenlightened perception of you influence your own performance or choices. Pursue goals of your own choosing, whether in the workplace, at home, or on the moon. Don’t limit your aspirations. Because if you think about it, people that are so unimaginative that they have to place you into a “group” based on something as silly as gender, race, religion or anything else, are not the kind of people you want influencing your life anyway.
If you can’t get your hands on a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In but want to hear more from her, check out her TedTalk. In it, she discusses many of the main points that she later included in her book.
What was your reaction to the book? Did you wish that you could throw it at certain people in your office and make it mandatory reading? Like me, were you a little bit skeptical? Do you think that this conversation will ultimately help improve work and home environments for future generations of workers and families?