A person reads a book for one of three reasons: they want to, they have to or they feel a tug of social obligation. The inevitable bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, $24.95) by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will be a subject of national conversation for months to come.
There’s no need to read Sandberg’s “feminist manifesto” to talk about it in great detail. Because in 15 minutes, for free, you can watch “Why we have too few women leaders,” the 2010 TED Talk that secured her book deal.
The talking points and anecdotes are the same; the speech is just funnier. In the video, Sandberg comes across as both powerful and likable, two traits that Lean In avows are “positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”
Besides 45 pages of endnotes, the book does accrue two new, nice, commonsense themes.
First, Sandberg quotes Facebook vice president Lori Goler quoting Fortune magazine editor-at-large Pattie Sellers: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”
Second, “If someone has to ask [“Are you my mentor?”], the answer is probably no.” To illustrate, Sandberg makes a rare snide comment. It comes when she tells the story of one of her presumed protégés at Google, where Sandberg was an executive from 2001 until 2008:
"I was surprised one day when she stated flatly that she had ‘never had a mentor or anyone really looking out for her.’ I asked what a mentor meant to her. She explained that it would be someone she spoke with for at least an hour every week. I smiled, thinking, That’s not a mentor – that’s a therapist (71)."
Sandberg, a married mother in her early 40s with a Harvard MBA, is a self-made multi-millionaire being wooed by every company in Silicon Valley. (Dave Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, is her second husband and father of her two children.) Rumors began circulating last month that Lean In -- and its eponymous new nonprofit, to which Sandberg is donating all of her publishing profits -- marks the beginning of her end at Facebook. Tactfully, she’s not burning any bridges. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently reneged the option of telecommuting for her employees, a lifesaver for many working parents, Sandberg stood by her former Google colleague.
Even though Annie Leibovitz has taken her portrait for Vanity Fair and Sandberg counts Arianna Huffington, Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey among her confidants, she’d call herself far from perfect.
“I don’t have the right answer. I don’t even have it for myself,” Sandberg said at TED, referring to the family/career conundrum.
In her book, she cites passages from Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Fey is a professional writer, but Sandberg and TV writer/journalist Nell Scovell do a good job following Fey’s template: offer advice, self-deprecate, and urge women not only to take risks but also to take credit.
When it came to feminism, Sandberg was a late bloomer. For example, she dismissed her business school mentor Larry Summers’s recommendation that she campaign for an international fellowship “on the grounds that a foreign country was not a likely place to turn a date into a husband.” After she earned her degree, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she first married at 24 and quickly divorced at 25.
Although she’s a tech industry veteran, Sandberg made a rookie marketing mistake with her book that can’t be fixed. Her manifesto is undercut by the feeble, ambiguous title: Lean In. She’s repped the unstoppable brands Google and Facebook; she should have realized that a gutsy, self-explanatory label is equally valued on a book spine. Lean In will eventually be shelved behind feminist must-reads like Simeone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Susan Faludi’s Backlash.
The TED Talk, the book, and all its viral offshoots lack a definition of what “leaning in” means. Are we supposed to tuck our hand under our chin (as Sandberg does in the cover photo) and stretch over our crossed legs so she can whisper the secret of happiness into our expectant ears? Are we supposed to keep our noses to the grindstone and dig in our heels at our jobs? And which heels are we talking about, our Manolos or the one conferred by human biology?
Back in October, when Knopf announced the forthcoming Lean In, my immediate reaction to her title was sour, even though Sandberg is a leader I admire and respect. Janet Maslin pinpointed my sentiments last week in The New York Times. She writes: “ ‘Lean In’ is a terrible title for her book. It’s as weakly euphemistic as ‘reach out,’ the touchy-feely synonym for ‘ask’…too dainty to convey what Ms. Sandberg really means: Stand up. Step forward. Speak out. Be smart and strong.”
In other words, Sandberg writes what Beyoncé sings: "Run The World, Girls."