One of the most controversial books of the past year is Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. At its heart, the book is Sandberg’s challenge to other women to pursue leadership in the work world even as they raise a family.
Since the book’s release, exactly one year ago today, criticizing the 44-year-old Sandberg has been elevated almost to a form of sport. So many people—women, in particular—have exerted great energy to point out where she’s out of touch or otherwise offensive in her views.
All of the talk piqued my curiosity. Was all the chatter driven by jealousy or envy? Or was this woman really so out of touch with professional women’s realities? I began reading the book last week to judge for myself.
The first refreshing surprise in Lean In is that Sandberg, in her introduction, anticipates and addresses some of the arguments that people have since unleashed at her. And throughout the book, she continues to validate women who make different choices than she does.
She acknowledges that being a high-powered corporate officer isn’t for everyone and that many women whose income does not come anywhere close to approaching her multimillions annually are not in a position to afford childcare costs so easily. She goes on to emphasize that a path up the corporate ladder isn’t for everyone, and is respectful about there being great value in women opting for different paths.
At the same time, however, Sandberg makes it clear that she believes women would benefit immensely by having more of their counterparts in leadership positions. Gauging by the examples she offers and the statistics she cites, it’s evident that she believes women ought to have about half of leadership posts, from business and government to education and other arenas.
That proportion would mirror women’s prevalence among college grads, as well as in the general population.
Early on, she quotes Judith Rodin, the first female president of an Ivy League school and current president of the Rockefeller Foundation: “My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices, but choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.”
(Interestingly, Rodin herself now acknowledges that she has regrets about her extreme career focus in Judith Warner’s June 2012 column at Time.com.)
Sandberg is trying to cast a vision for women and have them embrace a cause whose fulfillment comes at a rather steep price. There are substantial ongoing sacrifices that one must make to be at the top in Corporate America, while simultaneously having an actual family life.
As I read Sandberg’s book, I wasn’t surprised that I agreed with her on some of her viewpoints and conclusions, or that I disagreed with her on others. I found some of her perspectives enlightening, and others not so much. There was nothing earth-shattering in her book. But one thing I did find stunning:
While Sandberg wrote extensively about women being in leadership roles at companies, she is conspicuously silent about women being owners of companies.
It is a glaring oversight, not to even mention business ownership as a way for women to be in leadership roles. She acknowledges (and is clearly upset about) women choosing to leave, or at least stop climbing to the top of, Corporate America. But she is wrong in her assumptions about where these women are going.
While Sandberg quoted the stat that 14% of the top jobs are held by women, she neglected to mention that 29% of companies are owned by women, according to the most recent U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners. And that figure, a 20-percent increase over five years earlier, doesn’t include businesses that are equally owned (50/50) by a man and a woman.
Could it be that some of these go-getter women are looking to be their own boss? Could it be that they are interested in designing their lives and redefining what it means to “have it all?” To be a great leader, you first must lead yourself, a key business ownership trait.
Does Sandberg dismiss these women-owned businesses because they don’t have nearly the same number of employees as men-owned businesses? Because not every woman can attain the same level of success as Oprah? If so, then she’s missing the point of true leadership.
Leadership is about one’s ability to influence other people. And with technology, including social platforms like Facebook (with which Sandberg should be quite familiar), the ability to reach people and be heard has never been easier.
One example of a woman-owned business with only four employees is Lisa Leake of www.100DaysofRealFood.com, which has attracted more than one million Facebook fans. What started out as a pledge to provide healthy meals for her family has turned into an extremely profitable venture as she has engaged hundreds of thousands of passionate people to lift their voices, and make change happen, about issues like what is in our food.
Another example is the direct-selling industry, with Amway as a leader. Again, because of technology, the direct-selling industry is not longer geographically limited. Women who own Amway businesses, either by themselves, or alongside their spouse, have potential to lead millions of people.
And these women don’t just lead. They mentor others to lead—who, in turn, mentor others to lead, and onward it goes.
So while I agree it’s important to have role models in positions such as the one Sandberg holds, what’s more important is to understand what leadership truly is and not confuse where a person leads with how he or she leads.