Current Events, Research

Lean In / Lean Out

Lean InSheryl Sandberg’s best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is an important, beautifully written book. In it Sheryl rekindles the critical questions of feminism and equality. Just as the civil rights movement in the U.S. continues to need attention to reach its ultimate goals, so, too, does the women’s movement need renewed attention to reach its very similar goals. In general, the members of America’s minority groups – including women – still do not receive the respect and appreciation that they deserve. Although the civil rights and the feminist movements are both nearing middle age, and both have brought major advances in respect for everyone, they both have a long way to go before achieving true equality.

Lean In starts with a story about the need for reserved parking for pregnant women. This is not only a great idea, it is also a potent signal about the slights that women continue to experience, in and outside the workplace. Throughout the book, Sheryl uses research findings to document how and when women are slighted. As she notes, “Men still run the world.” This is all too clear, as “… the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the last decade. A meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women” even though “women continue to outpace men in educational achievement…” I can’t help thinking that she would have loved to read Muriel Niederle & Lise Vesterlund’s wonderful paper on men and women competing. Even when women are more talented than men, they choose to compete less. (The flip side, then even when men are less talented than women, they choose to compete more, is equally intriguing. Ironic, too.)

At the same time, she also identifies all of the feelings of inadequacy that women so often have that prevent them from pushing themselves forward, from taking initiative, and from getting their due. Even though she is wildly successful, Sheryl also acknowledges that she also lives with the fear that she may actually be a fraud. (She points out that Tina Fey does as well. Amazing.) She is also repeatedly self-deprecating – a particularly refreshing attitude from someone who has achieved so much. She is self-reflective about this as well, using this observation beautifully to note that it is so much more likely for a woman to feel this way than a man.

Much has been written about Lean In. Rightfully so. People throughout the corporate world should read it, men and women alike. As Sheryl notes in an interview, it’s critical to have these kinds of conversations.

I have just one fear, and this was raised in the Schumpeter blog in this week’s issue of The Economist. The authors reference my book, Do Nothing! (making me forever grateful) when they note that too many leaders do too much. Thus, it is important to note that women should certainly follow Sheryl Sandburg’s advice: they should lean in as they move up the ranks of an organization. At the same time, it is also critical to note that, once they attain leadership positions, they shouldn’t do too much, particularly when they could be more effective by doing less.

The issue here revolves around roles and responsibilities. Early in anyone’s career, they need to be active: they need to accumulate, use, and even show off their skills. They need to be noticed to get ahead. You can’t do that unless you lean in. But once you have achieved a position of leadership, you need to get out of the way and let other people do the work. Leaders create the most value by thinking – creatively, strategically, and of ways to implement new and effective strategies. They don’t produce anywhere near as much value if they do all of the work that’s needed to insure that their strategies will succeed. To put it another way, Sheryl quotes Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer, “ … it’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters.”

Thus, young leaders must still lean in when they interact with people above them in the hierarchy, because they need to continue to be noticed for their ideas and what they can get accomplished. But they must also learn when and where to lean out. This is their role as a leader.

It is hard to imagine very many leaders who should always lean in, and there are very few leaders who should always lean out. Major political and religious leaders might be suitable candidates for constantly leaning out, as it is unlikely that they will ever be promoted again. But the rest of us? We should use a two-handed strategy (maybe that’s why we have two hands): we need to lean in when we want to move up and lean out when we want to get things accomplished.


Muriel Niederle & Lise Vesterlund. 2007. Do women shy away from competition? Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122, 1067-1101.

Sheryl Sandberg. 2013. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf.

The Economist. August 17, 2013. The Schumpeter blog: In praise of laziness.



One thought on “Lean In / Lean Out

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say superb blog!

    Posted by Bee Hive Removal Cost Vanderbijlpark | May 2, 2014, 1:49 am

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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

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