Leaning in to the Larger Conversation

Having leaned out of my career for years while raising a family, I was hesitant to lean in to the conversation sparked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Published April 6, 2013 5:00 AM
4 min read


a11LeanInTHUMBHaving leaned out of my career for years while raising a family, I was hesitant to lean in to the conversation sparked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”


By Jeanne Rollins


a11 lean inHaving leaned out of my career for years while raising a family, I was hesitant to lean in to the conversation sparked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” I expected to meet the author’s call to female leadership with the same prickly judgment I observed in much of the on-line and on-air commentary. But as a family therapist working with women on both sides of the mommy wars, I couldn’t resist sneaking a peak at the big, bad wolf threatening to take a bite out of our family life.


As a relationship advocate, I considered myself the least likely woman to find merit in Sandberg’s message. But the moment I opened “Lean In,” my head began to nod as my pencil underlined, punctuated, circled, and jotted the occasional “Yes” or “Ha!” in the margins. I paused briefly at page 26 to make a note to put copies in the mail to our adult daughters.


My enthusiasm caught me off guard for a few reasons: I assumed from what I’d read and heard that Sandberg promoted all-in careers at the expense of family; unfairly placed the burden of change on women instead of the system; and was too far out of touch with the needs of modest families to offer worthwhile advice. While these arguments could be and have been made by focusing on particular quotes or the author’s robust financial portfolio, I found Sandberg’s invitation to lead as downright practical and widely applicable.


Another reason I braced myself before reading the book is that, personally and professionally, I tend to recommend choosing relationships over tasks. A young man recently sought my advice on whether or not he should follow his longtime girlfriend to Europe. I responded as any hopeless romantic would, “There will be another job but not necessarily another Ana.”


As I continued to mark up the pages of “Lean In,” I thought I might be missing something. I wondered, “Why am I so impressed with Sandberg’s advice when I expected to be appalled by it?” I eventually accepted that I understood what some didn’t: “Lean In” is more about the courage to lead than the context in which we choose to do it.


I imagine, like many others, I found what I was looking for. “Lean In” begins a necessary conversation that could and should extend beyond corporations to include families, non-profits, parent-teacher organizations, and even the lemonade stand at the corner.


A good leader is a good leader, wherever she chooses to be or lead. The advice Sandberg offers to women in business is sound advice for any woman or man to embrace, at any age and any table:


Take your place at the table with confidence.


Raise your hand until you’re heard.


Question the status quo.


Take responsibility for what you can change.


Seize the moment by avoiding pre-emptive compromises.


Choose a supportive partner who shares home/work responsibilities.


Pursue your passion and truth.


While Sandberg suggests that we need more women leaning in to boardroom tables, she admits it’s only possible if more men lean in to kitchen tables. She promotes not only fully realized careers for women, but fully functioning households for families. She dissolves the myth of “having it all” by reminding us of the obvious: Leaning in to one thing requires that we lean out of another. But because we live in families and communities, it’s not all up to us. As we lean in to one area of life, a partner, relative, or neighbor can lean in to the other. In the healthiest of systems, this is an ongoing conversation and flexible arrangement.


As a family therapist, I’ve counseled at-home moms and working moms and I believe we all have a responsibility to pursue whatever family-work balance allows us to be most genuinely present. I know full-time moms who have checked out and jet-set moms who remain very connected. The happiest woman is the one who recognizes the process as complex, personal, and evolving; and one that we don’t have to negotiate alone.


Those who doubt Sandberg’s respect for leaning in to opportunities other than fast-track careers should consider her source of inspiration: “My mother has leaned in her entire life. She raised her children, helped her parents spend their final years in dignity and comfort, and continues to be a dedicated loving wife, mother and grandmother. She has always contributed to her community and world. She is my inspiration.”


Instead of judging “Lean In” as a threat to families (which I fully expected to do), I embraced it as an invitation for women to step into our full power and inspire others, including our partners, to do the same.


While Sandberg suggests we leave fear and excuses at the door to take a seat at the boardroom table, we can take her blueprint for success and run with it to any table. I just hope this valuable source of information and inspiration doesn’t get lost in defense of family life, when it can so naturally enhance it.


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