On Leadership: While We Learn to “Lean In” We Must Also Zoom Out

A couple of nights ago I was catching up on The Daily Show episodes and was watching Jon Stewart’s interview with Sheryl Sandberg (Part 1 and Part 2).  If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and the author of the new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  During the interview Sandberg was suggesting that women need to not be afraid and lean in and to break the stereotypes by being more assertive.  Let me begin by stating that I have not read the book yet and although I plan to read it, the book hasn’t made its way to the top of the stack yet.  Overall I think that Sandberg raises some great points and I agreed with her on 99% of her argument but I think she missed one giant piece of the puzzle.

Image: Sheryl Sandberg on The Daily ShowSandberg cited that women are held back by sexism, discrimination, and terrible public policy – all of which I have personally witnessed in my career and agree with.  She went on to suggest that women are also held back by negative stereotypes where little girls are called bossy but little boys are expected to be assertive.  On this one I am not so certain- sometimes that may be true but I have also seen plenty of little girls referred to as bossy just as little boys get called annoying when they overreach that boundary where they are dictating versus co-creating play.

Where I would suggest that we need to zoom out to better understand the problem is when women choose not to seek those ambitious goals at the top of an organization because they don’t like what they see.  In my experience they often times will see individuals in those roles, mostly men, who are married to their job, who lack a balance between work and family, and who frequently have become a$$holes.  You’ll have to pardon my vulgarity but I really can’t find an easier way to explain it.  I have known many women, and many men, who have intentionally chosen not to go that route because it does not fit with who they are or who they want to become.

When we rank new up-and-coming executives by how many hours they put in, by how unbalanced their lives are towards work, or by how big of an a$$hole they can become we are bound to lose more women than men in the process.

I hope that this is where Sandberg takes the discussion in her book!  While I agree that we need to encourage girls to lead and applaud women for reaching ambitious goals I also think we need to hold our executives accountable for creating a better work environment where more women and men “want” to strive for leadership roles.

My other suggestion would be to examine the companies that are conducting the “Individual Assessment” or “Leadership Assessment” for candidates that are rising through the ranks of an organization.  These are the companies that are used to assess and qualify internal and external candidates for leadership positions.  There are only a few of these companies that service most of the Fortune 500 firms but they all follow the same methodology.  They are using historical executive performance criteria to evaluate which candidates will make the best future leaders and in the process they create a cookie cutter model where all leaders are held to a similar standard.  This process makes it difficult to select candidates who don’t fit the mold.  I had a colleague who was an extremely qualified candidate for a position but she was told that she wasn’t assertive enough.

This methodology reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.” – Peter Francisco

Food For Thought:

  • Who are the individuals leading your company?
  • Do their behaviors match your aspirations?
  • Which behaviors are holding you back from tossing your hat in the ring?


One reply to “On Leadership: While We Learn to “Lean In” We Must Also Zoom Out”

  1. Matt Hunt | Apr 22, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Here was an interesting article on Sandberg from the Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/da931d58-a7c2-11e2-9fbe-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2Qw9pHL3q

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