Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In: Why the Time is Now

This is the first in a series of posts I'm writing based around Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Future posts will be integrative and application-based. To begin, however, I decided to go a different direction. I'll be interested in your comments and thoughts.
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Up until now, when I've written about Sheryl Sandberg's wonderful book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I've focused on a combination of the content and the arguments that the book's critics - mostly women - have made against it.

It took me a while to figure out why those attacks were so prevalent...especially the ones that argued more against Ms. Sandberg and her success than what she actually wrote.

After a great deal of consideration, I decided that they wrote the way they did because they have no context. They either don't understand or are not considering what came before - which makes their understanding of what Ms. Sandberg is doing now both limited and limiting.

That has led me to make a decision that, among my friends, is a very real surprise: I'm going to tell a personal story - which is something I rarely do.

By nature, I'm not self-disclosive. Those I love know me and know my stories. But for them and others, the fact is I'm always far more interested in learning about them than I am about telling my history.

Moreover, in a business context, the only history I ever give is my father's: a quintessentially American entrepreneurial immigrant story that, because of his early death and the betrayals that came just before, ended sadly...and spurred me, years later, to create the solutions he never had.

This time, though, it's time to talk about my mother - and then about me. Hers is the story of women pre-feminism and mine is the story of the immediate post-activist period of the feminist movement. The two combined take you to today - and are the only way to fully recognize and act on the opportunities that Ms. Sandberg is presenting all of us now with her book and Foundation.

My Mother's Story

Like millions of other women of her time, my mother lived a life of unfulfilled dreams.

I always knew that she had had a career before she got married. Her last professional position pre-marriage had been as the executive secretary to the head of a San Francisco-based charity for the blind - and she'd loved her life. It was after World War II was over, she was young, on her own and successful in her own right.

She never wanted to get married. Never wanted children. She wanted the life she had.

Only her family - and particularly her mother - didn't want that for her. Living that life wasn't "success." It was the life of an "old maid." It was an embarrassment to her and to her family...or, at least, that's what her mother and society insisted.

After a while, the pressure became too much and Mom gave in. She went back to Los Angeles, worked in the family business, met my Dad and married him three months later.

And because of the times - and the pressure to define men's success as much as women's - my father insisted that my mother not work outside the home...whether she liked it or not. She didn't - but, in keeping with the times and the pressures on them both, she complied.

Frankly, I can't tell you if my mother was ever really happy in her marriage. I do know that, after my father died seventeen years later, my mother never looked back. She took her life into her own hands and never considered getting married again - no matter how much pressure her family brought to bear or how many men tried their best.

She was out. It wasn't on the terms she would ever have wanted - but she had her freedom back. Or at least as much as she could with three kids to bring up.

It didn't take long for her to decide that she wanted to renew her career. So she went back to school, getting her typing and shorthand speeds up again and making herself competitive so many years after leaving the workforce.

And she was successful. She quickly established herself and gained executive assistant positions once again - now moving up a career ladder in industries as varied as insurance, hotels and coffee...always learning, always being challenged and more than willing to take on those challenges.

By almost any measure, she was successful. She had launched the kids, had a successful career, friends and was living her life as she seemed to want.

But she wasn't.

Because underneath it all was the woman who, before ever starting a career as a secretary, had had the opportunity to take a fully-paid scholarship to a culinary academy and become a chef...her life's dream. Only she didn't. Because she couldn't. Because her family - and society - said that that's not what women should do.

Oh, they could become teachers or nurses...or secretaries...but a career? A real career? Not that. How would they manage it when their real career was a husband and children?

And because of those early lessons - all about what she couldn't have and couldn't do - she lived the rest of her life starting and trying new creative ventures - art and writing, in particular - with very positive feedback undermined by the deep-seated belief that she'd fail. So she stopped.

By that time, it wasn't anyone outside of herself that was stopping her. That wasn't even necessary any more. She stopped herself.

And that's the biggest tragedy of all.

Her life lessons taught her to believe that she couldn't have any of what she really wanted - or at least not unless she was willing to take a much higher risk than society told her it was safe to pay.

I knew some of this - but it was when I was going through her things after she died that I realized just how much my mother missed out on because of the instilled fears that drove and, ultimately, defined her life.

With each drawer and cabinet I opened, I saw the same thing: the unfulfilled dreams of a person who wanted to do and be more.

From Then to Now

My mother's story is why, in part, from the moment I first heard Ms. Sandberg's commencement address at Barnard, her TedTalk and, now, reading her book, Lean In, I have been such an advocate for all that she puts forward.

The other part is the context during my own lifetime.

For those of us who were not part of the feminist trailblazers but came immediately afterward, we hoped there was more - in tools, capabilities and possibilities - than then existed for us to achieve our success. But they weren't there, because they didn't yet exist.

We were given a picture of all that could be. We were told that we could "have it all" (a truly ridiculous expression - because it's not only impossible, but there's no such thing) - but in order to get the "all" we had to do things and be things and know things that we didn't and couldn't know.

We had great intent and great excitement about the vistas ahead, but we had no tools and no processes for getting there.

As a result, we were winging it. We tried everything - to be more like men, less like men, aggressive, assertive, collaborative, underhanded, linear, holistic, accommodating, self-centered...

We didn't know what we were doing. We had no role models - particularly in business - and the research, such as it was, told us no more than stuff like women end their sentences with upward inflections (which makes them sound less confident), use "we" instead of "I" (which makes them sound less confident), allow men to interrupt (which makes the men seem more powerful and women less confident)...

You get my drift.

And don't even get me going on those horrible suits we were told we were supposed to wear when we went to work. (Peplums and I never did get along.)

We had no definition or clear picture of either what we were doing or what we could be. We couldn't...and, for all that we achieved, it was a mess.

For me, what it looked like was that I:

  • Fought my way through multiple degrees - with professors on whose research teams I participated saying things like, "You don't need to get any further graduate degrees, you'll be getting married - so why don't you just type this next part up and forget about that admission form?" (seriously) and
  • Being in the midst of a doctorate and having the department decide - when I was already at Chapter 3 of my dissertation - that they didn't want the faculty to support my research any longer...which just happened to be entitled, "The Impact of the Differences between Men's and Women's Communication Patterns in an Organizational Setting." Instead, they told me to go back to the beginning and find a different topic, and, thus, led me to get lawyers involved and nearly sue the university in order to ensure I at least got a second Master's Degree out of it (because I certainly wasn't going to pay them any more tuition fees), and
  • Being headhunted for my first corporate position and, when asking for a higher salary than was offered (which I knew was low), literally being laughed at and asked, "Why would we pay you that much? It's not like women at that level are offered any more elsewhere"...and taking the job anyway, then
  • Having the innovative, organization-changing work I did outwardly stolen in collusion by a colleague and supervisor (both of them men) who took credit for it - and when I made it known to the "higher powers" (men and women) in the organization, was told that they knew and it was just something I had to deal with and accept...because I was a woman and it was a common occurrence...

All of which led me to go out on my own and find my own way. I, like so many other women - then and now - had to change the playing field to create a game I could win.

That's why, when Ms. Sandberg speaks of the way that women's progression has stalled in the past ten years, it makes perfect sense to me. We could get as far as we were able to go with the tools and knowledge we had - but then we were stymied.

Even though we were the participants, we didn't have the perspective - the context - to understand what had happened, what needed to happen next and, most importantly, how to get there.

Ms. Sandberg's book and Foundation give women - and men - all that and more. And that's why I'm such an advocate.

For those, like my mother, who came before, Ms. Sandberg is presenting a world that so many could only dream about - but never thought they could achieve. And never did.

For those of my time, we got as far as we could go - but no further. Now we can. Now, with Ms. Sandberg's writings and resources, it's not too late for us to fulfill our dreams.

For those of today, you have opportunities that go beyond what I or my mother could have dreamed awaiting you - and you now have the knowledge and tools to successfully go after them.

Don't allow the nay-sayers - within you or outside of you - to stop you from trying. Do it. Now. Don't wait.

If my mother were here, she'd tell you the same thing. Because she, like so many others, knew what happened when you either didn't or couldn't - or believed that that was the case.

Lean in. Then lean in some more. Then go further than you thought you could. Because you can.

My mother would be proud of you...and so am I.
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Lean In Applied: The Secret for Your Success (llk)
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In and Preparing Yourself for Success (llk)
Preparing to Win: When You Lean In...there be monsters (llk)
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (sandberg)
The Lean In Foundation