Book Notes: Lean In

One of the more recent and popular entries to the long list of good leadership books was Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.   Authored by Sheryl Sandberg, formerly a vice president at Google and now Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, I found it to be an interesting, edifying, and very worthwhile read.

Throughout the course of a captivating and insightful book, Sandberg explores not only the challenges of leading as a woman in the work place, but also shares her thoughts on how current leadership could do better to provide equality for all, and offers strong words of encouragement and guidance for those who are actively leading.

Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg

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It’s a Jungle Gym, not a Ladder

One enlightening point Sandberg makes early in the book is that the common metaphor of thinking of climbing the “corporate ladder” is the wrong way to look at it.  A ladder implies only one way up.   And the view of someone looking up from the bottom of a ladder is… less than ideal.  Sandberg quotes Pattie Sellers, Editor at Large at Fortune Magazine, who offers a much better metaphor – think of it as a jungle gym.

It's not so much a career ladder as it is a jungle gym. - Sandberg #leadership Click To Tweet

With this construct, it is easier to visualize multiple points of entry into a career, the possibility of moving laterally, or even down, across, and back up.  Instead of following one prescribed path, there are multiple paths to success, and room for more people near the top.   Thinking of a career path in this way opens the mind to new options and possibilities, and is far less limiting.  With the jungle gym image, the view is much more interesting, too.

Male-Female Perspectives

Throughout the book Sandberg offers a number of observations and conclusions about women and men in the work place.  Recognizing these differences can help leaders make better informed choices about everything from promotions to choosing the negotiating team for the next deal.

  • Women feel they need to have the skills before they apply for a position that requires them; men tend to look for “stretch” assignments that will challenge them to develop the skills they need after the get the job.
  • Women are more reluctant to apply for promotions that they deserve, believing that good job performance will naturally result in upward movement; men are more likely to ask for the promotion they think they should have.
  • Women do not generally negotiate well when it is on their own behalf; their nature and societal norms make such actions unattractive in women.  But when they are advocating for others such as their company or teammates, they can be just as effective as men, if not more so.

And she explodes the myth that you can have it all.  She traces the growth of women in the work place and the impact it has had on child rearing.  And while her findings are that a child’s development does not suffer because mom works full time, there are still choices and sacrifices a woman must make because of her perceived societal role.

Corporate culture demands full devotion of the worker to the job; society expects moms to be fully devoted to their children.  There is no perfect answer to balancing family and work, but it is also OK that there isn’t.  Her stories and insights on how she manages the tension between the two make for good reading.

A Definition of Leadership

Two thirds of the way through the book I came across one of the better definitions of leadership I have seen:

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”

I don’t think this is the full definition (It’s missing the part about getting stuff done), but it does a great job of getting to the idea that your leadership should have a positive lasting impact on those you work with.  Too often we think for the short term, worrying about performance on the next project, the numbers for the quarter, or the annual reviews that are coming up.

Insightful leaders think long-term. #leadership Click To Tweet

Insightful leaders think longer term, and act with the notion that in the process of whatever work we are doing, there is another process happening, that of creating better people, more capable teammates, more leaders.  Keeping that deeper imperative in mind as you lead is critical for the long term health of your team.

The Takeaway

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg has produced a very readable book that is part auto-biography, part leadership treatise, and part handbook for women (and men) in the workplace.  The book is filled with descriptive stories that illustrate her points, while also providing glimpses of what it is like to work at the highest levels in two of the largest and most successful internet companies in the world.  It’s a good read.

If you enjoyed these book notes, be sure to check out the other book notes on this site.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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