Lean In: Sheryl Sandberg’s Advice In The Real World

ER trip
ER trip

I had flown to our corporate office for a big meeting and I was walking into the conference room when I got a message from our sitter. The text said, “Do you think this needs stitches? along with a picture of a deep cut on my daughter’s knee. Welcome to childcare in the digital age.

After a wince and a sigh, I typed, “Yes, probably. I'm in New York today. Go to the hospital and I’ll get Billy there ASAP.”

I walked into the meeting and sat along the wall, away from the conference room table, trying to discreetly reach my husband so he could drop everything to go to the ER. About that time, I also realized I was still carrying my daughter’s insurance card in my wallet from the previous week’s doctor’s appointment. I had to take pictures and text them over to the sitter too. (What did parents do before smartphones?)

Finally, all the logistics were handled and there wasn’t much else I could do from a couple of thousand miles away. Everything was covered. My child was in great hands, and I was “free” to continue on with my day.

Except I didn’t.

As you can imagine, I felt more than a little guilty that I had “outsourced” the mom duties, and I sat in the meeting distracted and quiet. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any grand insights in the discussion. Frankly, I don't recall much from the entire trip.

I keep thinking of my story whenever I hear Sheryl Sandberg discussing her controversial book, Lean In. I’ve only listened to the “prequel” of the book, which first started as a TED talk. During the talk, and in excerpts of the book, Sandberg tells a story about a meeting where none of the women sat at the conference table. Instead, they sat along the perimeter and let the men dominate the conversation. From this behavior, she draws the conclusion:

Women hurt themselves by leaning back. They say, I'm busy or I want to have a child one day, I couldn't possibly take on any more. Or I'm still learning on my current job. I've never had a man say that to me." (emphasis added)

Quotes like this contribute to the chatter over this book and have bothered more than a few.

I can’t wait to read Sandberg’s thoughts in context, but until then, the idea that gives me pause is whether women truly “hurt themselves” by leaning back as she states.  It makes me wonder, is it bad to realize when you can’t take on any more? Why does it hurt to stay in a role where you’re still learning? Must ambition always come first?  When a woman decides to sit on the fringe, whether to text a Cigna card to an ER or because she doesn't want to log more time on a project, is she one of the reasons that “men still run the world”?

I don’t know about you, but that feels like a big leap.

It seems to me Sandberg may be forgetting that correlation does not prove causation. Just because women decide not to “lean in” doesn’t mean they are giving up the mantle of leadership, and it certainly doesn't prove that's why they aren't running the show. Lots of women want more to their lives than what work has to offer. (Though most paths won't land you on the cover of Time Magazine - a point the always provocative Penelope Trunk makes.) Many women simply want to change arenas of influence; that's not a bad thing -  it’s a choice.

My female friends who stepped back or away from the corporate workforce have done so because they craved MORE influence, not less. They felt as though they were trading their unique role in their families or communities for something that they weren’t passionate about. Mostly they became less ambitious about corporate things.

Perhaps the bravest response I've seen comes from Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Bros, who admits she regrets “leaning” too far into her career. Erin's comments aren't exclusively for women, but echo the sentiment from the ad executive about the gaps work will leave on your life and his ultimate conclusion that it's "not worth it."

So whether you lean in or back, the impact of the decision isn't necessarily a reflection of ambition, leadership, or faith in your skills, but in your priorities and values; those values are as individual and unique as you are.

Don't let anyone tell you anything different.