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A Book Critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

Ever so often I look for books that offer something more than a gripping story or a good tale. A consummate fact-oriented person, I naturally shun certain genres of books— especially self-help books. I always thought they were written by easily and overly excited people who had a good voice, a personable attitude, some life experience, and a cultured presence—but that it was all fake. This was easily bolstered when doing a cursory check into the author’s background.

One day, I was getting advice from a friend and he recommended a self-help book. I shot back rather quickly “I’m not THAT bad off, am I?” He laughed wryly, as I told him my perception of self-help books. He answered that I am 98% right; however, he encouraged me to pick through those books and find the gems, gleaning what I can and making the best of what was offered. That advice has enabled me to benefit from countless books, and this one was no exception.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, authored a compelling book that is anchored in today’s reality, inclusive of both genders, answers her critics, and dispenses practical advice aimed at increasing leadership and support for women. An easy read, the book gives a historical perspective on women’s perceived ability and leadership opportunities, cites recent statistics and studies to illustrate opportunities and challenges, and arrives at conclusions that are hardly status quo. The beauty of the book is that having ascended the corporate ladder, Sandberg is able to give both a retrospective and prospective analysis from a vantage point that few women will see: As a leader of a global technology powerhouse. Consequently, she uses her experience—and, sometimes, her lack of experience—to demonstrate cause, consequence, and action steps toward leadership.

The book addresses topics such as sitting at the table, the myth of doing it all and making your partner a real partner. It also addresses the issue of being successful versus being liked, a real issue for today’s career woman and her ascension to leadership. Especially helpful was the chapter on mentoring. Opportunities aimed at increasing membership/participation/

leadership often has some form of mentoring. The mentoring component, more often than not, lacks the ability to produce the desired results—usually, that includes increased bonding, flawless access to key leadership, a person who knows and will share “the way”, or even a person who will offer sound advice when asked.

Anyone who has engaged or even attempted to engage in professional mentoring could benefit from the insight Sandberg shares. People who seek a professional mentor would greatly benefit from the astute observations Sandberg offers. For example, in the book, Sandberg recounts a young lady to whom she had given some attention and had steered some opportunities. During a conversation with Sandberg, the young lady remarked that she had no mentor; she had no one to meet with her weekly, offer her guidance, and give her feedback. Sandberg’s observation was that this was not mentoring; it was therapy!

The book also addresses the delicate topic of women as obstacles to other women in leadership. The address was spirited, direct, and factual. Further, it was good to see a clear articulation of the impediments women direct at other women. A clear articulation of the challenge is the first step in solving it. Sandberg’s critics point out that she is better able to force the tradeoffs about which she speaks because she is well-positioned within her company. Still others point to her career opportunities, life chances, upbringing, and connections to bolster the notion that she had it easier, could make more demands, and had more control over her career than most.

Because of that, goes the theory, Sandberg is, somehow, dispensing advice that junior women or even women not yet on the ladder of leadership are unable to implement. Having read the book, I heartily disagree. Despite wonderful opportunities, Sandberg faced the same impediments. The practicality of her advice is evident in her experience working through obstacles rather than leveraging her connections.

This book offers the reader the chance to identify and pick through several gems; gleaning what can be gleaned and making the best of what is offered. It seems easy—too easy—to categorize this book as a self-help book, a feminist book, or even a feminist self- help book. Such a categorization ignores the simple reality this book engenders: That both men and women must boldly create leadership opportunities for women.

Sandberg points out, through studies and her own experience, that when real and tangible leadership opportunities for women are available everyone flourishes. The best part of all: This book ends with a REAL gem that illustrates the best use of resources I have ever seen. But, to get that gem, you’ll have to pick it from the book yourself!

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