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

Like 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.

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

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).sheryl sandberg book

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.

If you have a view on what Lean In means, please share below because I’d love to hear what you think! 

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! 

Thanks for stopping by and make sure to check back for more! xo

  • Yam Erez

    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.

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

  • Scifigirl

    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.”

  • Kellie

    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.

    • 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!

  • Judy

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

    • 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?

  • caroline

    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!

  • mark l

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

  • Bakery

    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!

  • dawa

    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!

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

  • BLBReed

    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.

    • 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!

  • anna

    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.

  • DLMVan

    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…:-)

  • This is a really interesting concept. As a relatively young man (29 as I write this) but also someone who’s built 3 completely different businesses from scratch…I’ve been completely ignorant that as a blond hair, blue eyed, extroverted man that getting what I want in America has been as easy as it gets. Good health, good talking skills, extroversion and classic midwest looks (that last one is slightly tongue in cheek) has given me A LOT.

    That said, this Lean In stuff is very new to me because I didn’t realize til about 27 how TRULY lucky I was to have the circumstances listed above. Sure I’ve worked hard, sure I’ve read tons of books, but I’ve had many mentors and most of the key ones were female. My mother, grandmother, stepmom, etc all faced barriers working and growing careers at various times and told me about a different type of “hard work”…the kind when you’re slapped on the ass or told to go to nursing instead of medical school.

    Yep honestly, until a few years ago I thought that was just in the movies. I admit my ignorance and have learned a lot. My current main virtual assistant is a stay at home mom with 2 gorgeous little girls and she’s chosen a much more “balanced” career path. I’ve made it my goal to enable her to grow with me for the next few decades and can’t see myself ever letting her go because she “gets it.” She wants to grow and succeed but only if her little girls are covered. I respect that and have built many systems to enable this work life balance.

    From what I’ve read about Lean In, it seems like there’s a TON of easy things companies (admittedly mostly run by men just looking at the stats) can do to enable a more balanced life. I absolutely believe it’s ridiculous that things like paid maternity/paternity time and partial telecommuting aren’t “automatic” because I really don’t see a true cost. Granted working in a digital business means I have a lot less barriers…but I also don’t have millions of dollars to pay for cafeterias and gyms and doctors for my employees.

    Big thing I feel like…

    1. Fix the easy stuff (flex work, temp work, more paid time for parents, etc)
    2. Ignore gender in decisions (no not that inhuman gender neutral crap…I mean admit that men and women are equal but different and thus are better in certain situations AND NOT BE SCARED OF THAT)
    3. Add more humanity into business by focusing on value creation rather than just profits (this is a measuring problem NOT an “I don’t know how” problem) and then go from there.


  • Bart Beasly

    They need a better term than “lean in.” It’s really irritating and a turnoff because no one knows what the hell it means when first hearing it.

  • David McCrabb

    Great idea, help people have the courage of their convictions/decisions and feel good when they succeed and when they fail, not sure any of that is gender oriented. On pumping, as an older man (67), I go to the bathroom more than others, but I just get up and go without any explanation or rational. Why can’t a woman just do that? In fact in most business meetings I have been in missing the first 15 minutes is no big issue especially if you tell people “I am in but will be 15 minutes late” The old saying “the only problem with the virtue of punctuality is there is no one around to appreciate it”.

  • Mark Graybill

    One thing to keep in mind is that we (meaning people regardless of gender) tend to oversimplify how we view people. Thing is there is more to the human story, and the rest of the story differs from the mindset of a typical discourse in the public mind whether the topic is the Glass Ceiling or White Privilege.

    If we say that men and women are different in the context of this topic, what does it mean to you? Does the meaning refer to blame or lack of capacity?

    I must adamantly preface that my intent excludes both ability and culpability. We need to get away from the culpability game (blame game) and the capacity or aptitude game, and start understanding the part of human nature that sets the stage of learning and success. By understanding ourselves and others we can better overcome how we can impair the opportunities of others, as well as ourselves.

    Males and females, and those in between (yes, whether genetic or procedural), have more intellectual and achievement potential than we will ever realize. There are no genetic connections between gender and ability. Moreover, the good choices we make that might delay us in the corporate race are not wrongdoing. Thus, my speaking here of differences has nothing to do with ability, rites or culpability. Keep this in mind as your read on. Please remain aware of the false dilemma trap and remain open minded.

    So where am I going with this?

    I will first share and discuss an observation as an elementary math teacher and math competition coach. The classes were small enough that everyone felt they could speak up, well except for answering math questions posed to the group. The reason for not answering math questions is they had already determined who was “best at math”. The person who was acknowledged as “best at math” was the only one who would answer the questions.

    (This is a social instinct thing that has implications long obsolete, but outside the scope of this post.)

    You see, “best at math” is a social role that one had won the competition for. Care to guess the gender? Yes, in every class regardless of grade, those who were “best at math” were all male. But it was not because males have a higher capacity for math.

    I altered the format and how I operated so the role of “best at math” could be up for grabs. Then I was able to destroy that role altogether by showing I will not recognize such a role. Then all participated and all learned. At the end of the term I always had at least one female tell me she didn’t think she could be good at math until my class.

    What I observed in social differences between girls and boys was most interesting to me. To put it simply, boys were active and girls watched the boys. In the math competition team I coached, the boys could crack jokes, talking constantly while doing math really fast. The girls watched and listened while their pencils remained stationary. One female even told me she could never be as good as the boys. I told her good at math or good at cracking jokes and talking while doing math?

    These social differences fade as we age but often they remain somewhat, if only subtly so (we don’t have to let them rule us). Again, it’s our social nature that alters our attention and performance and thus our opportunities.

    How does this relate to this topic, you may ask? To me, “Lean In” means to be active, to take action, rather than to sit back and watch. Those who take action confidently tend to do better socially, and doing better socially means doing better in our career. (And I haven’t addressed other common social roles, such as social power.)

    Statistically-speaking, females and the otherwise highly introverted may tend to sit back more than their opposites. I have observed extroverted females achieve more than introverted males. But if the predominant gender in the organization is male, an implicit bias may exist in favor of males (not intentional, see link below).

    Once again, ability is irrelevant. We all have more ability than we will ever realize and our gender has no genetic or biological impact on ability, barring what our social nature influences. Think of our social nature as like our computer’s I/O device (monitor, keyboard, mouse). Does it matter if you have the worlds more powerful gaming computer if your graphics card and monitor cannot handle the games you play?

    Years ago I had an intellectual face-off with a retired educator, who claimed smart is just something you are or are not, citing the book The Bell Curve. I won because I had science on my side. But how could I have science on my side when the statistics of achievement and performance seem to agree with that retired educator?

    Getting back on my soapbox, here’s where human beings tend toward the false dilemmas and oversimplification, and we fail to realize that we assign causation in our minds based on our biases, not reality. We fail to truly assimilate the fact that the statistics themselves do not reveal causation. In scientific studies we would say “all-cause”, meaning, the two variables may not be linked by causation.

    Are boys better at math than girls? The statistics tend to say that but what is better? Do boys perform higher at math than girls? Yes, statistically-speaking. Are boys better than girls at math? No. These are apples and oranges.

    If one were to cite a common variable that has causation, it would be one that has not yet received the attention it should have: our social nature.

    So in cracking the glass ceiling (or reducing the K-12 achievement gap or eliminating White Privilege) what remains to be discussed and applied is understanding human social nature – what we have in common as a species and what we have in common with our gender. Why? Because our social nature not only hinders or elicits the support and acceptance of others, it also moderates and mediates what we perceive and what we attend to – and most of all, what expectations, roles or stereotypes we allow ourselves to fulfill. Girls by the time they are in college may already dislike math. Was it a product of aptitude, or their social history? The scientific literature overwhelmingly supports the latter.

    A perhaps common situation that could bullet-proof the glass ceiling is discussed in my article here: http://aboutleaders.com/effective-leaders-glass-ceiling/#gs.n1Bkugg

    It is important to note that ability and culpability need to remain out of the problem statement and solution equation. In summary, the most important variables to treat are the nature of the organization’s social culture, and the social nature of the people in them.

    Glass ceilings everywhere will shatter once we get a handle on these two things.

    • Jo

      I’m a retired elementary/middle years educator, with background in social psychology and advanced degree in human development, and I totally agree with this assessment. Thank you.