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.