Monday, March 10, 2014

Lean In and The Identified Patient

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In has been generating a great deal of controversy among women. In some cases the reactions have been over the top negative. Cut to my all female book club when I lit a match under dry tinder by asking if anyone had read Lean In.  Two members vehemently began to trash the whole book as baseless from the studies Sandberg cites to the concept in general.  Maybe I should not have been surprised but I was. My experience of the book had been different. I thought Sandberg was really generous to write it. After all, she's a Facebook millionaire and didn't write it for the cash. 

I found her research quite credible and have cited many of the same studies in my own gender and leadership lectures. I found it incredible that the book's title alone could create so much ire (the two most outraged lean in haters admitted to not having read the book to begin with…ahem). 

Frankly, I loved the book. It is filled with practical advice, its research is credible, and how often do those women who have broken through the glass ceiling ever show their underbellies this way?  I find myself giving the book to the twenty-something women I know (who love it) and avoiding bringing it up to the over 35 set. 

However, I have been curious about the negative backlash the book has created among the senior executive women I know. I am thankful to my friend Nina Lualdi for sharing her thoughtful perspective with me. She is a high level executive at the country level with huge international experience and equally huge responsibilities on top of being a wife and mother of two. If anyone is leaning in all the way it is Nina. She has a couple of decades of leadership experience and has been subjected to every type of soft skills development and leadership training available. 

Her issue with the lean in concept is along the lines of fatigue at being the identified patient (not her words but mine).  The concept of the identified patient in a nutshell comes from family psychology. In a family the identified patient is the typical problem child - whether they really are or aren’t. The identified patient is the person in the family who is singled out as deficient, needing of fixing like a patient in a hospital. In reality the family as a group entity is projecting its own collective dysfunction onto the one member - the identified patient.  Group psychology is mind blowing if you stop to consider this, but it happens all the time. 

To take this to the world stage level gender battle, it means that the gender conversation (embodied in books like Frankel's status quo supporting: Nice Girl's Don't Get the Corner Office) looks for ways to fix the underprivileged minority - in this case women.  Fixing is a euphemism to get the minority to look, act, and breath like the majority -which of course is impossible.

The best argument for why the concept of lean in irks high-powered female corporate veterans may be that they are tired of being the identified patient, tired of being asked to look within to critique/fix their problematic female core self. 

There are many studies that show the presence of women in top leadership positions (on boards of directors and executive teams) strengthen a company's viability and performance significantly.  There's also a lot of data on the table about how women who have had to lead without formal authority are actually better negotiators and team builders. Such qualities don’t sound like something to fix. 

All of this begs the question: why aren't we focusing on the powers that be that keep women out?  Why are we trying to make women (and as Nina astutely observed: minorities and anyone who is not tall, white, male, and has a Type A personality) over to act more like men?  Why do we see their qualities as deficient versus something to be honored, aware of, and cultivated? Why aren't we asking the men who hold the power to open the doors and get over the 20th Century qualms about the "marital implications" of mentoring female colleagues?

Maybe the focus should be on educating those in power now about the huge benefits and value of cultivating diversity throughout the leadership ranks.  I think some appropriate titles might be:

Sharing Power 101: A 12 Step Guide


Lean Out of the Way: Collaborative Leadership for Veterans of the Command Control Culture

These are the types of books we need to see. As Nina pointed out, we need to change the conversation not female traits.


  1. Hi Dr Stanley, great blog! I too have heard lots of controversy over this book but have not read it. It's on my seemingly endless "to read" list. As a single mother of 2 teenage daughters, I try to guide them with appropriate advice and lessons on these types of issues which they will face in the future. I am usually the type to hear both sides before making up my mind so I appreciate hearing that you enjoyed it but sought out the reasons behind the backlash. Did the explanation change your opinion of the book or its value at all?

  2. Hi Darlene,
    Thanks! The backlash comes from many sources too numerous to record here. But no, the explanation did not change my opinion of the book. I have a new appreciation of the surrounding issues, but the book is great. Like I said, every twenty something woman I have given it to loves it. I wish I had it at that age. It's a wonderful thing that Sheryl Sandberg put herself on the line to make a difference for the better.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, It's in my library ready to go when I get a chance to listen! I'll let you know what this forty something woman thinks when I'm done.

  4. Well I just finished Lean In. Maybe it's because she is only 1 year difference in age but I thought she was on the money about the state of this issue. I found myself moved to tears at times realizing this super intelligent and successful woman struggles with the same issues and thoughts as I do and has had some of the same experiences as I have. I found it brave of her to open up about her decision making process over the course of her life and career.
    I have a deeper understanding of why after having ambitious career goals in college I am now 14 years a stay at home parent, I leaned back because I encountered so much resistance I didn't think they were attainable. This book made me see my goals were and still are attainable. I started leaning in on my own by applying to MSPP and after reading this book, I know not only is it ok to lean in but I need to lean harder.

  5. Hi Darlene, I agree- I think it was brave and gracious and validating. I have a friend who leaned back because after daycare costs she would have only been making about 50 cents per hour. But now years later she is still out of the workforce and as a mother in her twenties she had a lot of resentments as her single childless friends moved forward with their careers.This is why I refer the book to the twenty-something career women I know. I am glad you are leaning back in and are doing so in our program! I had my husband read it too and it was great in terms of getting on the same page regarding equal partnership.


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