Lean Together

Lean InIt has been hailed as a turning point in the feminist debate. It has also been written off as an apology for Big Business. And everything in-between. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has created the media whirlwind that its author intended in her quest to disrupt the status quo.

One hesitates to add yet more words to those column inches. But there’s an important connection that seems to have been overlooked. It’s why this fine book is ultimately flawed.

And it is a fine book. Sandberg may be wildly rich, absurdly well-connected and bossy – but it’s easy to like her [just watch her TED talk]. She’s clever and sincere and kind and, in some places, LOL funny. And she’s trying to be a peacemaker: “The gender wars need an immediate and lasting peace”, she writes.

Lean In is helpful. It abounds with nudges – ideas on how we can dismantle the barriers that our subtle prejudices create. From the Goldman Sachs partner who cancelled his dinner schedule and insisted on holding one-to-one meetings with his team only at breakfast or lunch – so that he could mentor women equally and without any hint of impropriety. To the story of the hospital physician who decided never to ask for a show of hands when he turned to his junior medics on the ward rounds (men being typically far more confident of their own abilities) but instead would ask his questions directly, and always evenly between the male and female junior doctors. And the CEO of American Express who, knowing that women are more likely to interrupted, will always stop a meeting to point it out when it happens.

Sandberg cites, as an example of what can be done, an initiative at Harvard Business School to address the under-performance of women and international students. The school’s culture was rigorously examined and ‘soft’ adjustments introduced to foster collaboration and respect. In just two years, the performance gap virtually disappeared – and overall student satisfaction levels rose. In a more equal environment, everyone was happier.

Sandberg is not blaming anyone in particular – we’re all complicit. She’s trying to inspire us all to engage in a ‘final push’ that will give birth to a world where there are no female leaders, just leaders. And she’s optimistic that things are changing as younger people, both men and women, look for new models of family life.

But ultimately – as The Times reviewer described it – Lean In is a manifesto for ambitious women. That’s not meant unkindly. Sandberg recognises that everyone should be able to make their own choices, and that most women don’t have anything like her resources or opportunities: “I am fully aware that most women are not focussed on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day”.

To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.

It’s a worthy aim. But is it as ‘simple’ as this? Is it maybe even a mirage?

The work environment within which Sandberg operates is brutally demanding. ‘Commitment’ boils down to being what we used to call a workaholic. It’s received wisdom that only the paranoid survive. Sandberg cites research that 69% of corporate managers can’t even go to bed without checking their inbox. OK, she is a self-styled alpha – so she enjoys the pressure. But this increasing addiction to work is not confined to Palo Alto. Crazy hours are expected across many professions nowadays. And it seems to be going global as well.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

Almost wherever we look, the workplace is becoming relentlessly competitive. It’s an assumed ‘passion’ that jeopardises family life. And as work becomes more hyper-competitive, women’s opportunities shrink. Pregnancy and maternity leave especially become huge issues. Sandberg acknowledges her own fears that – even at her level and with her talents – her job and prospects at Google would be diminished if she took ‘too much’ time off [that is more than a week or two] after her first child was born.

Sandberg acknowledges that it’s a rat race. “A career is a marathon”, she writes. She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.

What if we try instead to slow down and step off this devilish hamster wheel that we’ve created?

First off, I think, we would want to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition.

The irony of course is that the attitudes that enable this, the behaviours that can best shift our work environment from hyper-competition towards cooperation are precisely the ones in which women typically excel: humility, empathy and compassion.

To be fair, Sandberg isn’t asking women to drop these qualities. Her focus is on developing assertiveness. [And, as someone who often struggles with assertiveness, I have to say that I found her advice wise and helpful.]

But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).

The real challenge, surely, is to escape the culture of contest, to create new forms and structures [Enterprise 3.0?] that reflect the accumulating evidence of the desire for work that is characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration.

If we can do that, we can really change the world. Because in a workplace built on cooperation and reciprocity, women’s contributions would be naturally and unremarkably accepted. Mothers would be able to follow Sandberg’s advice to ‘Do What You’d Do If You Weren’t Afraid’ and take whatever maternity leave they think is right for their child – without paying a big career penalty. It would be the world for which Sandberg is calling, where “expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Sandberg says that: “I have written this book to encourage women to think big”. It’s a book from the heart, and well worth reading. But to truly change the world, maybe we must all think bigger.


52 thoughts on “Lean Together

  1. Great stuff Mike .this phrase particularly resonates with me .. to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition. Is this part of our industrial past that we need to jettison??

  2. Dear Mike, this is an excellent and balanced review which definitely tempts me to buy the book, and as a result my bank account will be somewhat less balanced. Your point about the need to have more room for compassion and humility reminded me of a concept I read about somewhere long ago of ‘negative self-assertion’, by which was meant being able to assert these softer qualities without betraying them – truly difficult art.

  3. This is an excellent analysis on her book. I love this point, “… She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.”…. I don’t know how much things will change in the workplace to accomodate women and things like maternity leave without riskng career detraction or ostraciztion from successful women who frown upon these things (by only taking a week or 2 off after giving birth–that’s a really short mat leave!)? I sometimes wonder if getting women into higher positions is to get them acclimitized to the existing corporate culture, as opposed to the other way around? Great post!

    • I don’t think anyone, including Sheryl, is saying that EVERY women needs to be a leader. She is hoping for a corporate world where we share the leadership. And to do that more women MUST “win the race”. The “very few of us” should be more evenly split between male and females so that our companies can get the benefit of both perspectives and serve customers (which are both men and women) with more innovation and creativity.

      • Anyone, anywhere in any position can be a leader, whether it is a full time position or a temporary status on a given project or piece of work. Shared leadership is not about winning a race, its about seeking out each individuals strengths and bringing them to the surface for the good of the collaborative whole. As anyone can lead, leaders do not have to be the very few, evenly split between men and women, young and old, but instead for us as a country in a global marketplace, we must seek to put the Right Leader, in the Right Place at the Right Time. Many leaders with diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives and diverse approaches are the key to success and would enable us to transform that existing corporate culture.

      • I agree with you that leadership can happen anywhere…anytime. But the context of Ms. Sandberg’s book is Corporate leadership…where the numbers between men and women are still hightly skewed one way. I work for a large corporation…and I lead all the time. But the movement of women into key leadership positions DOES NOT HAPPEN at our company and it shows in the culture, our innovation, and in the unwillingness of younger women to be willing to speak their truth and find the leadership voice in the corporate world.

  4. This book got my attention one month ago when some housewife moms recommended it among themselves. The book encouraged them to do something different from their daily home-centered life. Although I am still a student, I’d love to have a look of the book. After seeing your wonderful review, I decided to read it right away. Thanks for the great review.

  5. Thanks for your great review. I also read the book and agree with a lot of points you made. Can you elaborate more on your idea of Enterprise 3.0 “[…] characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration”?

    • Hi – the short answer is that I don’t know!

      If Enterprise 2.0 was about the revolutionary changes (still unfolding) driven by automation and the internet, then Enterprise 3.0 seems like convenient shorthand for what might be a similarly profound transformation driven by the adoption of business models that are defined more by collaboration than competition..

      It’s something that I plan to explore here over the coming months – and hope that you’ll want to join in, of course!


  6. As a young, working professional, I pre-ordered Shery’s book and was so excited to jump right in reading. Life, however, has stood in the way and I haven’t yet begun it. I am familiar with her TED talk, however, and I did just watch her Office Hours session with Levo League (www.levoleague.com), so I feel relatively familiar with her thoughts.

    As someone who grew up aspiring to work and have a family, I like the concept of Leaning In because thinking I can achieve all that I hope to by being engaged appeals to me. But your concept of Leaning Together seems to be a great compliment. If men and women worked to create that environment that is supportive and fluid, wouldn’t we all benefit a bit more? I’ll be interested to see where I stand after reading the book. Thanks for your comments!

    • Hi – I agree – we would all be better off.

      There’s nothing wrong with Lean In, it’s an admirable book. It’s just that there seems to be a bigger problem that we must solve if women are truly to succeed (and men, of course)…


  7. Oh please. I am so tired of this discussion, When I was in school, there was no Internet and classified ads in the Sunday newspapers were divided into two groups: Help Wanted Male and Help Wanted Female. Now that was job discrimination. On my first job, men’s starting salaries were more than twice as women. The reason? Because men were in the Management Trainee program. Women weren’t and shame on any of us who saw the flaw in their logic. Now THAT was job discrimination.
    Now it’s safe to say that women have achieved equality in the workplace. Not perfect parity but darned close on the level that most of us work. So if a man wrote this book, no one would notice.
    There are good and bad mothers. There are good and bad fathers. This is not a gender-based issue, just as deciding to throw yourself into your work does not make you a bad parent or a good employee.
    What we need to do is take gender out of the discussion and focus on the high level of incompetence in business management. If women (or men) want to succeed in business, might I suggest the proper schooling and a healthy dose of common sense?
    Managers run like lemmings toward the next new trend. They pick up some business book at the airport book stall and come home to follow the dictates of the author. These are especially popular if they can have a sports theme: out goes Six Sigma Black Belts and in comes Agile Development Scrum Masters.
    Meanwhile, the lowly employees must suffer through corporate takeovers, downsizing, and the like. The are shuffled from offices to cubicles to “touchdown stations” because someone wrote that was the way to drive your business. And, in the age of Work at Will employment, any given day can be your last day on the job.
    I said it 20 years ago and it still applies: “American business survives in spite of itself.”
    I’m a consultant, so I no longer have an investment in any company. My father may have been able to devote over 30 years to a single company, but those days are gone.
    That’s why I choose to ridicule the business workplace in my blog. I write what I see.

    • Hi

      I recognize the madness of that cubicle world only too well. And you’re absolutely right that discrimination today is a shadow of what it once was (in some countries anyway, let’s remember).

      But Sheryl Sandberg is surely right that discrimination still exists, and that it deserves our attention because it’s holding women back.

      In her view, Lean In thinking can enable that transition to a world where there are no longer female leaders, just leaders. And womens’ full and equal participation as leaders will then drive the change that will transform women’s opportunities more globally.

      Which is where I diverge. I’d like to believe it’s that ‘simple’.I wonder though if it’s possible, and sustainable, in such a competitive world? It seems to me that’s the underlying condition, the root cause, that we should be addressing.


      • I guess there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to discrimination. I happen to work in a high tech field where I see no discrimination. The CEO is a woman. Many managers are women. The salaries are high. The employees are ethnically mixed.
        This is light years away from the workplace I entered 40 years ago where there were practically no opportunities for a woman (unless she could type).
        It took Federal laws to make that happen — with a lot of opposition from the men in power.
        There is no reason why it can’t happen. It is happening and there is no reason why it shouldn’t.

  8. “But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).”

    Maybe if their partners equally share the load then then it wouldn’t be an “increase in hyper-competitiveness”.

    Do you think the words hyper-competitive are ever used for men? I’m not being touchy…I’m honestly asking. Because I’ve NEVER heard them used about men and heard them used often about women.

    • Hi

      You’re absolutely right of course – and Sheryl Sandberg is clear – that it needs to be a real partnership.

      I’m intrigued by your comment about the label ‘hyper-competitive’. I was using it in the context of mainstream corporate culture (rather than applying it to either men or women in particular). There are lacunae out there where wellbeing, creativity and collaboration thrive – but it seem to me that most large enterprises are, by and large, very competitive places.

      My experience is that both men and women can be hyper-competitive, though more often it’s the men who lose the ethical plot. Women seem more often to be hard-wired for collaboration.

      The really interesting thing perhaps, and a source of optimism, is that men and women CAN be equally collaborative, in the right milieu. How do we create that culture of reciprocity and trust? That’s the question, I think.


      • Thanks for the reply. I thought one interesting aspect of Ms. Sandberg’s book was the idea that women are expected to be collaborators and men are expected to be independent thinkers. I wish that we were all better collaborators AND all strong enough/loud enough/willing enough to have our voices heard.

        I am a Product Manager in what is a surprising competitive landscape. The company believes they are all about collaboration but in reality at my level (one layer down from VP) folks are pretty cut-throat. It is a choice and a decision every day to maintain my authenticity, morals, and integrity and not sink to that level. I am thankful that by virtue of my very personality I strike the balance between being a successful straight shooting communicator and likable.

        It’s a challenge though. In one week I was coached on being “too direct a communicator” and “wanting too much to be liked”. Can you say leadership whiplash? When I questioned my male superior on if he found these messages confusing or if he’d coach a man in these areas, his response was “Frankly? No. But it’s different for you. You are a woman.” I raised one eyebrow and said “You don’t say?” and went on about my business being direct AND funny. 🙂

  9. This book is on my list of books to read and so I’m really enjoying the conversation. Even more keen to read it now. I love your sentence about reciprocity, sharing and collaboration. As a school teacher these are three of my goals in the classroom. We need to be assertive and confident. We need to believe anything is possible but ultimately we can’t achieve anything in isolation.

    I’m all for Leaning Together. Thanks for this post, it’s very thought provoking.

  10. This was a terrific and balanced review of the book. I finished it last week and found it to be all the things you said and not all of the things that many others proclaimed it to be. When I finished I was still worried about things and you identified exactly what those things were. SS provides great input, lots to think about and outlines a way for women (and men) who want to participate in the environment they are creating but there is no real push for all to think long and hard about how to fundamentally alter that environment so that it works for the long term. She holds out the hope, as many of us do, that the more women who work in leadership positions, the more dynamics will change on the personal and work front but that alone won’t do it.

  11. I completely agree with your premise and solution. Even in a nonprofit environmental career, it was the competitive who took the top, always. You could know within five minutes of meeting a new employee if they would rise or stagnate. Sorry affair.
    I believe if we could teach everyone in our society, men and women, to cultivate humility, listening, collaboration — giving a shit. basically — America and then the world would be transformed.
    While I personally believe that spiritual growth and faith in a higher power (thus humility) is the only true way to accomplish this heart-change, I have always loved John Lennon’s song (distinctly *not* faith-based) “Imagine.”
    Congrats on the FP!

  12. I was intrigued by this paragraph.

    “To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.”

    I wonder if the last 50 years have been good for women?


  13. It’s a balance most definitely, as assertive women can become tyrannical and because that is perceived as a less feminine role, they can be wrongly leveled as well. I think that some of the work for women is that they validate and operate from a point of what each in their team or employ can bring. That way they can be balanced leaders who encourage all to use their talents and do the best that they can with the resources that they have.

  14. Reblogged this on Just Pankaj and commented:
    Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

  15. this sounds like an interesting book, and I like the points you make. I would add that everyone needs to change how they work because we are not machines, we do burn out and health is the most precious gift we have. Once its gone its gone, waiting until your burnt out is too late. Competition might feel great at the time but it won’t be any good when your too ill to work, male or female thats the bottom line.

  16. you guys are really great just keep going
    BTW iam a student cant relate in the topic but iam taking now OJT(On The Job Training)
    maybe someday I can relate.<—need job after graduating.

  17. Pingback: Lean Together | NRLT's Blog

  18. …and then women will come
    to learn
    – just like a lot of us
    men have – that it is really
    not worth the effort
    and is a fallacy


    • This is the place in this discussion, the point I’ve been waiting to hear! The whisper of the “secret”. Now, who will be able to “know” it rather than having to experience it for themselves first?
      One “knowing” at a time will begin to shift the goal both personally and corporately. This, for me, is such an inspiring phase in which to participate. As my late father-in-law said often, “lead with the highest sense of right”. When I’m able to act on that thought I rarely go wrong.

  19. Love the concept of Lean Together! Imagine what the professional landscape would look like if this type of collaboration was implemented versus the “rat race” marathon concept of having to award a “winning leader”.

  20. Embracing and emulating the values of a dying capitalist culture is no solution. But the myths our culture are based on will not be abandoned. Social progress only really happens when dying cultures die and are supplanted by more viable ones. Let this moving paper fantasy die, and then we can begin anew to create a more viable ethic.

  21. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. Two major challenges facing today’s businesses are lack of innovation and disengaged employees. Businesses who foster cultures with the characteristics that you note of “reciprocity, sharing, and collaboration,” are far more innovative and have happier employees. Extensive research by Shawn Achor of Harvard University has proven that happy employees are more productive, and everyone is more successful. What a concept……..

    • An interesting speech I once heard quoted research proving women are premier innovators and successes from companies who build R&D teams with women taking advantage of that fact. Your post reminds me of that and resonates.

  22. I admire your drive to encourage women to think big & don’t quite agree to the comments made by ‘epilepsyme&neurology’ about burn out’s being the consequential ending of careers which women should watch out for if they get competitive. Being a woman myself & facing enormous challenges after a burn out, I have learnt to think big, fight the challenges & run a global business with a sole purpose of helping people find true love. Despite my share of challenges that I face on a daily basis, I try to excel & make a mark on the world. So go girls….think outside the box!

  23. Reblogged this on LaughingLife and commented:
    Excerpts of this book and comments have left me salivating for more. It sound like an excellent read, by a remarkable woman, so it is most definitely going on my books to buy list. I am all for women representing me as a woman, an intellect and expert in my field,in the higher echelons of the corporate world. I admire and respect them for their daring choices,however, for now I choose to remain impassive on the whole subject of women

  24. Reblogged this on principalaim and commented:
    Hands down my favorite book of the entire year is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Having read all of the early buzz (and criticism) surrounding Lean In, I made it my business to buy a copy, and I have been recommending it to friends and family ever since. It is not only a personal narrative/journey about a talented and determined woman. It is also a manifesto for any woman ambitious enough to dream about a career while doing what is necessary to achieve her dream. The book is inspirational, motivational, and practical. If you have not read Lean In, it is not too late to add it to your summer reading list.
    If you don’t believe me, here is a great review from The Purpose of Work about Sandberg’s book. You can also get great insight directly from Sheryl Sandberg through her Makers profile. Makers is an initiative sponsored by PBS and AOL. tlb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s