What Does Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Really Mean?

sheryl_stanbergLike many, I’ve been fascinated by the publicity surrounding the launch of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” initiative over the past few days.  Lean In is the latest installment in the past year’s heated debate on work life balance for women which started with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article last summer and continued with Marissa Mayer’s various statements about her pregnancy and baby, and her recent ban on working from home at Yahoo.

So over the past few days, people are weighing in right and left saying whether they plan to lean in or not lean in, or lean away or whatever.  Frankly, the metaphor jokes are a little out of hand at this point.

However, I am actually still trying to figure out what Lean In actually means, what it’s all about!  So I decided to try to find out exactly that.  What does Lean In actually mean?  What does it not mean?  And what could it mean to me (and you … because I hope you will weigh in!  Please notice that I didn’t say lean in).

First, a few caveats and a bit of background.  It goes without saying that I haven’t read the Sheryl Sandberg book yet, although I did buy it and skim it.  (I’m currently on page 300 of the Steve Jobs biography so not expecting to polish off “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” on a timely basis this week.  Sorry, Sheryl!)

And I know I’m not alone in having been skeptical of this billionaire self-appointed leader of a social movement that does not yet exist.  Like, who do you think you are, lady?  Silicon Valley’s modern Betty Friedan?

But here’s the thing: as I’ve read more and more about Lean In, my initial irritation at Sandberg’s boldness softened.  I now think Lean In is a good idea and that I personally might have quite a bit to learn from it.   I’m even kind of hoping the whole thing works out, because we womenfolk need all the help we can get.

OK, let’s start:

Lean In Is Not Just A Book

The always-smart Lisa Belkin described the various aspects of Lean In and what it means and doesn’t mean in a piece published in last week’s HuffPost.  For starters, Lean In is not just a book.  Rather, it is a whole initiative that includes: 1) the book, 2) a community site (LeanIn.org) — complete with instructional videos and materials, and inspirational stories, along with the stamp of approval of member companies – and, 3) should they arise, small support groups or “Lean In Circles.”

Lean In Doesn’t Mean Don’t Take Time Off

In case you were confused by the visual metaphor – which implies getting more involved, not sitting back –  “Lean In” doesn’t mean opting to climb the corporate ladder and not opting to take time off from work for a baby or family member or to play the flute.  In fact, Sandberg encourages employees to voice their views on such circumstances in the Lean In on-line community on LeanIn.org.  Here’s how she beckons people to join the Lean In initiative.

“Whether you are a woman or man…have read the book ‘Lean In’ or not…are just starting out, considering a change, taking a break, looking to start something new, or trying to pursue a personal goal…we are so happy to have you here.”

So Lean In is not just for corporate types, nor does it mean we all have to sing the same tune.  And Sandberg goes on to say in her blog:

“If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can … and accepting them.”

I like that.  Success doesn’t mean staying in a game that’s not for you because leaving connotes failure.  Rather, it’s having the courage and self-confidence to go for what you want and the forbearance and maturity to accept the consequences.

Lean in Doesn’t Mean Its All Women’s Fault

Don’t even try to accuse Sandberg of simplifying things and saying that women are to blame for the fact that they don’t obtain more Fortune 500 CEO positions. Sandberg makes clear that Lean In is aimed at one side of this issue.  As she says in her book:

“This is the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation. The chicken: Women will get rid of the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into these roles in the first place. Both sides are right. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.”

Nice move, Sheryl!  No one can dismiss you now for blaming the victim.

SO, What Is Lean In Saying?

To me, Sandberg is saying that women need to spend time (hopefully in her nifty “Lean In Circles”) thinking and sharing and communicating about the things they can change in their professional and personal lives in order to better obtain their goals.  To Sandberg, women have been held back by body language, speaking voice, and our tendency as women to shy away from speaking out because, essentially, we lack self-confidence.

I have to say that I totally agree with this.  I get very insecure sometimes even writing these blogs or doing my shows and I have to remind myself again and again to just dive in, take the plunge, and trust my gut.  It’s scary.  But even scarier to me is not doing it, so I essentially force myself.  For example, I didn’t even think this piece on Lean In was too hot (and my husband told me last night: “You can’t write it if you didn’t finish the book!”) but I decided on my own that I didn’t think that was the point.  The point is to get the conversation going, about women, about us, about how we ideally want our lives to be, and how we want our work to be.  So at the risk of failure and ridicule, I’m plunging in here.

Thinking about this lack of confidence issue, we’ve all got our war stories and they do mean something.  When I came back to work after my first baby and was still nursing, I can remember being all set up with my pump and sandwich in my small office when what had been a conference call changed into a meeting, and then having to take off my pumping gear.  Soon thereafter came that pit in my stomach as my breasts started to bulge and leak during the meeting and I had to excuse myself and go to the ladies room.  I’m older now and less shy and I would LOVE to be in a group with younger women in this position and to suggest to them that they say in such a circumstance: “I’m pumping now but I’ll be done by 12:15 — can we do the meeting then?”  I know that for the group of nursing moms who return to work, having the courage to say such a simple thing could make a huge difference in taking pressure off and allowing them to manage the needs of their baby while they continue with their careers.  I can’t speak for Sandberg, but I bet that speaking out in this example would be an example of Leaning In.  Let me know if you disagree.

And I’m sure all of you have examples galore of times in your life that something might have been just a wee bit difference had you had the courage to speak up for what you needed or wanted at the time.

On LeanIn.org, there are plenty of stories showing us all different types of examples of women who pushed the envelope, overcame fear and just plainly went for it.

So with all that being said, I understand Lean In to be an initiative or movement that starts a conversation about empowering women to have the courage to stand up for what they need and want so that they are better able to believe in themselves and in their talents, and to make and live with their own good choices. Phew — glad that sentence is over!

And What is Lean In Saying to Me and You?

I’m what I call a corporate widow, having worked in the corporate world for 10 years before migrating over to the world of penniless start-ups (ha!).  However, I don’t take Lean In to mean that I made the wrong choice in my life decision to seek more flexibility and pursue my dreams of producing content and videos for mommies.

Rather, I see this initiative as potentially providing me with some useful tools for being more confident as a business and creative person.  I might even watch some of those videos and see if it helps my speaking style…

I’m also thinking maybe Lean In will help me speak with more authority as a mom.  Because, you know what, with kids as well you have to have your act together, believe in what you say, and stick to your guns else they decide to disregard you entirely.

What does Lean In mean to you all?  Do you feel that lack of confidence has hindered you in your life?  Are you happy with the professional choices you’ve made?  And what do you think we can do about work life balance for women?  Thanks for reading this long, rambling blog! 

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17 Responses to What Does Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Really Mean?

  1. Yam Erez March 28, 2013 at 4:55 am #

    Agree with everything above except I vote we go back to “expressing” instead of “pumping”. The former sounds more delicate, the latter like you’re an oil well. I’d feel comfortable saying “I’m expressing milk. Can we start in fifteen minutes?” But “I’m pumping…” Not so much.

    • Melissa Lawrence May 1, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

      That’s cute — expressing also has that double meaning where you are expressing yourself through expressing milk! I dig that too!

  2. Scifigirl May 1, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    I’m reading the book now. One take away I got was to think about how a man would do things. The book goes on to describe the balancing act women have to negotiate in order to be perceived as somewhat “communal” ( the traditional perspective) without being perceived as looking out for only oneself. With that in mind, I wonder if a better response to the breast pumping situation would be to simply say, “changing to an in person meeting requires a bit of juggling, would 1215 work for everyone?” I cannot imagine a man ever giving a personal reason for a meeting time change. Most times I hear,” that will,or won’t work”; “I’m available or not available.”

  3. Kellie June 1, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    I agree with your husband. Why would you write an article without having actually read the book? Why not set the Jobs bio down, read Sandberg’s book, and post a couple of days later?

    This isn’t a criticism, it’s a question.

    • Melissa Lawrence June 3, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

      Hi kellie, it’s a good question, I have to admit. The point with the Steve Jobs bio is that I am STILL reading it one year later. When I published this blog, I was concerned about being timely… I didn’t think I had another YEAR to wait and read the book, but I thought I understood enough about what she was trying to say to weigh in. But the point that it is irresponsible to weigh in like this when you haven’t read the book is well-taken! Really I was super irritated hearing everyone attack SS and the concept, when I thought they seemed to be misrepresenting the ideas she was laying out, so I was trying to jump in and say that the concept seemed to have some real value to me… thanks for commenting on Cloudmom, though!

  4. Judy June 3, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    You still don’t explain the metaphor. Where does the phrase “lean in” come from? Why is the movement expressed in these terms?

    • Melissa Lawrence June 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      Hi Judy, I just reread this blog (which I found to be a bit long, to be honest) and I thought I did explain the metaphor? It is about going for it, sticking up for your needs, engaging, not shying away from representing what you want to get out of your career and your life… what does it mean to you?

  5. caroline June 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    why be delicate? it’s not like extirping milk from our two beloved bags of fat isn’t beautiful AND ugly, hard AND soft. saying you want to be (seen as) delicate is a little like trying to hide the fact that most moms-to-be poop during childbirth (!). don’t take away the fact that it is ravishingly beautiful, hard work AND, a lot of the time, considered ugly business to be kept private. don’t let the so-called “ugliness” keep you from saying it out loud, letting the plain truth ring louder than your wish to please (your male boss), or strive towards a man-defined social convention (naturally) that we (women) are obliged to be pretty and delicate! say it like it is: we are pumping!

  6. mark l July 18, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    thanks for this – loved your perspective and the ‘just do it’ nature of the blog itself

  7. Bakery September 9, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Interesting that you ended on a note of self-deprecation. I thought this post was neither long nor rambling, but informative and helpful. Thank you for posting it!

  8. dawa January 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Hi, Interestingly enough, I too, have been wanting to understand this term more completely. I had no idea that someone had based a book and created an “initiative”, so what I have to offer may not be of appeal or of interest to anyone in this forum. What I have come to understand is that this term has been used for quite a long time, my gut says it began as an “athletic” term for surfing, skiing, etc. Of course, the visual in Titantic also resonates with me, the scene where the young couple climb the prow of the boat and lean in to the wind as the boat sails. And, this term is also used in spiritual talk…for instance:
    “…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
    ― Pema Chödrön
    I’m happy that I found this blog, it validates my quest!

    • Melissa Lawrence January 8, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

      Dawa, thanks for the amazing research, glad I read what you found out!

  9. BLBReed March 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I still have no idea what this awkward phrase means. All I can guess is that when you become really interested in a subject, you tend to lean forward toward the speaker.

    Even with that brilliant insight, “lean in” still conveys nothing to me.

    • Melissa Lawrence April 8, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      thanks for your honestly… have to agree that it is a bit conceptual — I tend to think that you lean into a conversation when you are really interested in it. So lean in means commit, engage, go for it. But I think at this point it means something different to everyone. Thanks for commenting!

  10. anna April 29, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    I think the entire concept “lean in” is absolutely ludicrous. Cheryl S comes from money and has no idea what the average working woman has to manage. She’s a rich girl who wrote a book. End of conversation.

  11. DLMVan August 25, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    To me Lean In means the same as Lean Into which means to oppose or counter an near or completely overwhelming force such as wind, navigating a tight turn or corner on a bike or bicycle or other vehicle. To avoid being blown or thrown aside by a force perceived as too big to conquer you must hang on, grip tight and lean in as you engage. How this applies to Sandberg’s book, I have no idea…:-)