• 03.12.13

Why Everyone–Not Just Women–Needs To Lean In

At the center of Sheryl Sandberg’s divisive book is a truth that’s not just for women. A look at the debate raging around her new book, “Lean In.”

Why Everyone–Not Just Women–Needs To Lean In

“Excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere,” writes Ann-Marie Slaughter in her review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Slaughter, who broke open the work-life discussion last year, continues her distillation: “Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all, ‘lean in’ and ‘don’t leave before you leave’–which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby.”


Slaughter’s critique is a part of a roar of conversations occurring around the Facebook COO’s new leadership tome, as the The Wall Street Journal reports, there’s a “a bull market for think pieces about Sheryl Sandberg.” While there’s a lot to discuss from the book, as Susan Adams at Forbes notes, the most controversial point of the book is also its thesis: Women limit their advancement because they don’t have the self-confidence that men do.

But this is not a problem specific to women.

In her own words

Setting aside the tussles, let’s start from the primary text. In a lengthy Cosmo excerpt, Sandberg recounts her first day of work for “a small company called Facebook.” While she had every reason to feel confident, between her successes at Google and the Department of Treasury and the alignment between her and the company’s mission, she still felt pangs of failure–usual for the first day on the job.

Reflecting back on the experience, she says that it would of been helpful if she’d seen one of Facebook’s famous in-office silkscreened signs–one asking, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

It’s from this question that she addresses the reader:


Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong decision. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And for those who want to have children, the fear that we can’t be both good employees and good mothers.

While she admits that its “pointless” to tell you to be fearless, she recognizes the importance of facing down fears, whether the daily choices of raising your hand or taking a seat at the table or the life decisions of fully engaging in a career while planning to have a family.

“By fighting these fears,” Sandberg writes, “women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment–and freely choose one or the other…or both.”

How it feels to Lean In

Full disclosure: As a male, I have to make the point that this kind of fear-facing is essential to any person’s self-actualization, work-life integration, career-finding, or however you want to describe the process of becoming your highest-functioning self.

Writing for the Daily Muse, Whitney Johnson articulates it better than I can: Using the lens of Jungian psychology, she posits that every person, regardless of gender, has an inherent psychological structure with both “feminine” and “masculine” qualities. She says that the capacity to relate and to love belong to the feminine side, while the ability to wield power and control situations is masculine.

“In order to become a complete person,” Johnson writes, “we need to develop both.”

While our culture incentivizes neither women nor men to take responsibility for that development, it seems that kind of personal initiative is the essence of leaning in.

Read more of the debate on “Lean In”–and tell us where you stand in the comments:

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.


[Image: Flickr user Michael Cory]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.