Last week I finally got around to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much discussed book Lean In.
Part autobiography, part business self-help guide, the book chronicles Sandberg’s meteoric ascent to the very top of her profession, and considers how women can ‘lean in’, to realise their ambitions, and achieve work-place equality with men. The book has received both glowing praise and harsh criticism in equal measure.
It is hard not to agree with some of Sandberg’s critics. Throughout the book there is a disconcerting feeling that Sandberg is blaming the victim. Women’s failure to achieve parity with men in the boardroom is put down to their failure to ask for pay rises or promotions, and their unwillingness to defy gender norms and appear ambitious or arrogant. The larger structural obstacles holding women back, like the costs of childcare, government backed incentives for mothers to be primary care givers and of course plain old discrimination, institutional and individual, are largely ignored (see this McKinsey report for an interesting exploration of these issues).
However, for me, the book works best if you forget about Sandberg’s somewhat queasy views on women in the workplace, and focus instead on the real story of the book. That of an exceptionally successful individual, who overcame fears and anxieties about her abilities, her desire to be liked and her worries about failure, to achieve the career of her dreams. Sandberg’s fears are not, I think, limited to women, but apply to all of us. Surely very few people have never felt out of their depth or insecure as they pursue their ambitions, whatever they might be. As a book about overcoming these feelings, I found Lean In very inspiring.
There were many eminently quotable parts of the book, but one that stuck with me was this:
‘Ask yourself: what would I do if I wasn’t afraid? And then go do it.’
So that’s my challenge for myself, and for you, today.