I picked up my copy of “Lean In” from the Drake Human Resources department on Friday, fully committed to reading the introduction in preparation for a staff book club, but feeling like I might not have the time to delve much deeper for now. But once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Each chapter, I found myself either exclaiming YES! or chortling with self-recognition at things I might not be approaching in the best way. It felt like Sandberg had heard all of my angsting from the past three years and told me to pour myself a big cup of tea and pull up a chair for a heart-to-heart.
Before actually cracking the book, my impression of “Lean In” had me feeling conflicted. Here I am, almost eight months pregnant, about to graduate with my Master of Public Administration degree and ambition that’s conflated with the realization that I really enjoy my life right now, with a very flexible and not super stressful full-time job and a co-chair role in launching a new young professional group and as an idea-bouncer-offer with TEDxDesMoines. Even though I’m not technically on track for a “senior role” in my organization (we’re a small office of four), does what I’m doing count as “leaning in”? And at what point does leaning in lead to toppling over onto my face?
There was no better time for me to pick this book up. Sandberg had me from her opening anecdote, in which she is very pregnant (she gained 70 pounds!) and waddling into the building from a far-away parking spot. I appreciated how she alternates between macro-level data about women in the workforce/societal barriers to women in leadership and personal stories from her inner circle. She also includes passages that show she she is well aware she’s speaking from a point of privilege and that not all women are in the same economical situation and that not all women desire a C-suite career. These are all personal choices. But these choices also impact culture.
I read the book as a listener this first time, but feel like I’ll go back through and highlight especially poignant passages during the next pass. I see myself revisiting “Lean In” more than once at different stages. It’s definitely brought me more clarity in this pregnancy phase of life than any “What to Expect” type book on parenting. I’ll be checking out the content on LeanIn.org, too.
Sandberg shares a handful of the anecdotes in her TED talk, which is like the Cliff Notes version of the book:
The main topics that resonated with me at this moment had to do with mentorship, guilt/the myth of doing it all, and her “don’t leave before you leave” plea.
Mentorship: When I’d interview successful professionals as a staff writer for Juice, it seemed like everyone had a fabulous mentor who’d helped prepare and advocate for them to get to that point. I felt like if I could just find that one mentor who would square my shoulders toward a particular path, this was the secret ingredient. Reading “Lean In,” I realized that a mentor isn’t a fairy godmother, or even someone who you necessarily get together with for a monthly chat. (That’s a therapist, she writes.) If I want to approach higher-level people, I need to have a specific organizational question or problem and avoid asking about work-life balance and those generalities. I can’t be like the bird, asking “Are you my mentor?” or plead with puppydog eyes Invest In Me. In reality, I have lots of people I trust for advice on issues or problems, many of whom are my peers and collaborators.
Guilt/Doing it all: Sandberg spend a whole chapter on how important a supportive partner is for a woman’s ability to “lean in.” Joe and I went into our marriage with a very clear 50/50 split kind of mentality, although I will admit that especially when grad school has been in session, he’s done the lion’s share of housework. He’s a much better cook, but I need to remember that he appreciates it when I at least make an effort, even if the outcome is not gourmet. Obviously, with the baby there are things I will be biologically more equipped to handle, but I think we’ll be able to come up with a system that shares the responsibilities associated with parenting. Joe and I are also super-lucky that his sister is a childcare provider, and after maternity leave, the plan is that she will take JamJam while we’re at work. (Don’t worry, we’re paying her!) I have no desire to be an at-home mom; I think I lack the special kind of patience required. When we were discussing this possibility, I hesitated, though. Sandberg describes a scene in which her child reaches for a nanny for comfort instead of her, and the stabbing hurt that sent through her. I wasn’t sure I would have the grace to swallow that jealousy-tinged guilt if we were at a family party and our child reached for his or her aunt instead of me. I just have to remind myself that she’s a pro with babies and how lucky I am to have my child in the care of someone I trust completely.
Not leaving before I leave: I think I’ve probably done a little bit of this, in forecasting my potential inability to be involved in certain things because of the baby coming — primarily because I don’t want to disappoint people. Flaky behavior frustrates me, so I don’t want to make commitments I am not sure I can follow through on. Vague opportunities have presented themselves and I’ve passed because I’m not sure what my post-baby life will look like. I’ve told my friend Alexander that I might “go dark” (a phrase we’ve adopted for when people who used to be engaged stop responding to e-mails for awhile) for a few months during maternity leave. I want to be intentional and present in the time I spend on work/organizations I’m a part of and intentional and present in the time I spend with my family. This is increasingly hard in our plugged-in world, but the family-oriented culture in Des Moines makes it seem more do-able than I’m guessing it would be in a D.C. or L.A. I think the lesson here was that if I really want a seat at a certain table, Joe and I will need to do as Tim Gunn says and “Make it work.”
I first “took a seat at the table” as president of our 3rd grade classroom’s two clubs: Speakers Club and Kindness Club, which involved organizing programming for Friday lunchtime – an experience that both resulted in my first ever memory of being stressed and several proud moments of helping my classmates. When I was in eighth grade, I ran for Student Advisory Council President (slogan: Spirit is the Key, Vote for Bri!) and lost, but as Secretary, ended up doing most of the work. (I still remember my mom sharing the “Behind every great man is a great woman” quote with me and how the idea raised my hackles. Why couldn’t the woman be in the front?) In high school, I served as Social Chair, planning dances as a member of student government and as co-editor of the yearbook. In college, I was a Residence Hall Advisor, student supervisor for dining services and a campus tour leader. Some people may have thought – and called – me bossy. It’s not that I had a huge desire to Be In Charge of All the Things, but I typically haven’t been shy about pulling up a chair and sharing my ideas.
Here’s what that little early life CV boils down to: I don’t want my “lean in” days to have peaked as a teen. I’m not saying I have Sandberg’s brilliance and acumen, but I am trying to take feedback and develop myself into a more likeable leader (back in the day I may have been referred to as “dictator” of yearbook). A couple of my past interns have reached out to me in the past few weeks with a quick/random thanks, so I feel like I might be on the right path.
Right now is the point in the “marathon” Sandberg describes, where internal and external voices shift from cheering a woman on and instead send messages like “You don’t have to do this!” or worse. But using the Harvard Business School definition of leadership Sandberg shares, I know I want to Lean In.
Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.