What happens when everyone “leans in?”

Sheryl Sandburg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, has become an overnight sensation, and deservedly so, for her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  If you haven’t already, you should take time to view her very compelling TED lecture: Why we have too few women leaders. In that talk, she notes how women, though fifty percent of the population and about that same ratio in the workforce, hold far smaller percentages of the very top positions in government or in industry. She has three pieces of advice for her gender: (1) sit at the table, not the back benches; (2) make your partner your real partner; and (3) don’t leave before you leave. By these she means, respectively: (1) don’t underestimate your importance and your contributions to your organization and your work; the men you work with aren’t so bashful or modest… you need to “lean in” as they do; (2) instead of doing twice as much housework and three times as much childcare as your husband (the national average for working couples), ask for and expect more help from him; and (3) don’t make the mistake of throttling back at work because you are contemplating some uncertain future day months or maybe even years ahead when you might choose to have a child; instead, work at full speed and maintain your ambition until the day you take maternity leave. Ms. Sandburg has been listed in Fortune’s top 50 most powerful women in business for years and in 2012 made Time Magazine’s list is one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Definitely worth a listen.

One result of this success is that the expression “lean in” is now on everyone’s lips (and presumably on their minds). And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Men have been listening and have been early adopters of this phrase. It’s all over the place, along with its train of variations on the theme.

Which raises the question: what happens when people stray from Ms. Sandburg’s excellent principles, and seek instead to get ahead using only the tactics? What happens when everyone “leans in?” What happens when at meetings no one is willing to take a seat away from the center table? When men amp up their game in response, compounding the challenge to women? What are we to do when no one any longer acknowledges his/her career owes a great deal to accident or circumstances or help from others? When everyone insists on the full credit he or she is due…and maybe then a bit more? Queue up the sequels… the book entitled “Leaning in a Bit Further,” to be followed by “Lean in the Most,” and ultimately, “Don’t Just Lean in, Push in.”

The point is: there are lots of good self-help ideas, but the best are those that are principles-based versus tactical and that would work the best even when, or especially when, most everyone follows the same advice. If when more people follow the advice everyone has to increase the level of effort to get the same relative effect, then the idea might be bankrupt. By contrast, ideas such as “put the common good first,” “be honest,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the like seem to offer something superior.

Discussions about advocacy framed in conventional terms… special pleading for favorable budget or legislative treatment… have something of this tactical lean-in flavor… without any underlying principle. When everyone advocates in this way, no one is better off… advocacy simply demands more and more of everyone’s energies and attention. The clamor of advocacy for every cause under the sun becomes deafening, taking focus and resources from the actual challenges we all face, and tempting us into adversarial relationships when instead we should be forging teams.

There are lessons here for both the weather and climate enterprise and for gender. The lesson for meteorologists and the small but essential community we represent is that we will never win the battle of leaning in. Far better to make our rallying cry Lean on me:

Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won’t let show

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand (Chorus)
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’d understand
We all need somebody to lean on…

Surely our best path forward is to continue to help our nation and the world meet needs for water, food, and energy; protect the environment, and build community-level resilience to hazards… and let those we serve become our proponents.

As for gender, I both expect and hope that in the future women will be represented in top leadership positions in numbers equal to or exceeding those of men. Fairness dictates nothing less. What’s more, the human race can’t survive and prosper throughout the 21st century without drawing on the fullest capability of every member of society. When the happy day does arrive, the success is likely to be clearly attributable to a full range of merits and capabilities of those involved… their wisdom, vision, passion for service, ability to mentor and nurture others, form teams and work collaboratively for common purpose… not merely their ability or predisposition to lean in.

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