Sheryl Sandberg's Lean in: Inconsistent Arguments and Flawed Conclusions

Even though Sheryl Sandberg's book has nothing to do with lean manufacturing, my news feeds bombarded me with announcements about it. It is probably the only book with "lean" in the title where it is a used as a verb, in the sense of leaning forward or back. I had heard of Sheryl Sandberg from her work at Facebook, and was curious what she might have to say.

The book kept my interest all the way through, which is more than I can say of most business best sellers. It is well organized, with chapters that have descriptive titles, with reasonably dense content that matches the titles. Excluding front and back matter, it is 178 pages long, and suitable for reading on one transcontinental flight.

That the book kept me turning pages, however, does not mean I agree with what it says. For someone in Sheryl Sandberg's position to give career advice is a bit like the Mad Men's Don Draper giving advice on picking up women. From her own stories, Sandberg went from Harvard Business School to McKinsey, the Treasury Department, and Google to finally become COO of Facebook in her late thirties.

No doubt, she did all of this by her wits, but she doesn't seem to have known adversity. She has not had anything like, for example, the 12 wilderness years that Steve Jobs endured from his firing from Apple to his return. Sandberg made the right professional decisions to get where she wanted to be, but how relevant can her advice be to millions who do not have her abilities or opportunities? She does not brag about being smart, which wouldn't have been, but her resume speaks for itself. She also gives marital and parenting advice, which is courageous for a 43-year old married barely 10 years, with children still in elementary school.

Her message is not consistent. When she says that gender discrimination is a waste of talent that we can't afford, that is unarguable. But she goes on to say that the world would be better if half the heads of state were women and half the households were run by men. This is a message of parity, not equal opportunity. If a woman is willing to run into burning buildings and has the strength to carry out a 200-lb unconscious person, her gender should not stand in the way of becoming a firefighter; that's equal opportunity. Mandating that half the firefighters should be women would be parity, and parity only makes sense in professions where gender itself matters to performance.

Police detectives, for example, must communicate with citizens in tense situations and gender can be a factor in gaining their trust. To her credit, Sandberg does not advocate parity as a legal mandate, but it has been done in other countries. Norway, for example, has quotas of at least 40% for each gender in the boards of public corporations. In the US, it would mean that, by law, 40% of the board of Harley-Davidson would be women and 40% of the board of Victoria's Secret would be men.

She criticizes stereotypical "Pretty as Mommy" messages in toys for girls, but makes her own generalizations about gender-specific behaviors of men and women, asserting, for example, that women apply for positions only when they have 100% of the required skills, while men apply with only 60%.

In a few places in her book, she urges her readers to be "ambitious in any pursuit," and occasionally hails achievements like her brother's in pediatric surgery, but, everywhere else, the only kind of success she discusses is securing leadership positions in business or government. She does not have much to say to the men and women who are happy to leave endeavors like monetizing social networks to her and prefer to seek cures for AIDS, write novels, or cook. Sandberg is obviously good at what she does, but her book could have used a broader perspective.

A surprising story is that, on her first day of work at the World Bank, she did not know how to use Lotus 1-2-3. In my experience of working with MBAs, juggling with spreadsheets is the skill they least lack. The rest of the story is equally surprising: her boss taught her how to use the program. Some years earlier, arriving at the Hahn-Meitner Institute in Berlin to work on my Masters' thesis, I realized that I would need to write Fortran code and didn't know how. But all the help I got from my boss/adviser was his assurance that he trusted me to figure it out. It was understood that, at this level of education, the one thing you are supposed to have learned is how to teach yourself what you need.

Sheryl Sandberg describes herself as busy with work and family. So how did she find the time to write a book? The first page says that it was written "with Nell Scovell," which is the standard way to acknowledge ghostwriters. At the end of the book, the acknowledgements further indicate that Nell Scovell took a break from her other professional engagements to work on this book.

Also a Harvard graduate, Nell Scovell is the author of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and screenplays of other TV shows. Perhaps due to Scovell's professionalism, the book is polished to the point of lacking an authorial voice. To paraphrase the saying attributed to Hemingway, to write, you just stand in front of the computer and bleed. Sandberg's book would have been more compelling if she had done that.


Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

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