Book Review: “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg



In the last 2 years, I have tried to read a book every 10 days except when I’m on vacation. I have learnt a lot and “lived” different lives in the process. I thought it’ll be great to share some of my lessons learnt with you. I am really excited about this, there are some titles that jump to mind as I think about this, some of which are “My Vision” by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, it blew my mind on the whole concept of leadership, vision and the political will to make change, as a Nigerian this book caused my heart to break in so many ways and I think it should be compulsory reading for all Nigerians in leadership and public service… I also loved “David & Goliath” by Malcom Gladwell, I loved his “Tipping Point”. I loved “the Go Getter” by Peter Kyne and “the Go-Giver” by Bob Burg and John David Mann. We’ll discuss all of these including “Good to Great” by Jim Collins under “Book Reviews” on this blog. Lol, I’m so excited, I know I sound like a geek, but hey, geeks rule the world and books are it!

So we start today with “Lean In” a book by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. I have always been fascinated by excellence, more so with women who are excellent at what they do, and Sheryl embodies just that. She is the first woman to serve on Facebook’s board. Before Facebook, she was the Vice President of Global Online Sales at Google and before she took up that position, she served as Chief of Staff for the United States Secretary of the Treasury. These are not positions you get to without hard work and excellence, so let’s climb the shoulders of a giant and see what someone who is doing what we would like to do (work excellently and be rewarded for it), did.

Sheryl starts off “Lean In” with great statistics such as; of the 195 independent countries of the world, only 17 are led by women. Women hold only 20% of seats in parliament globally and in the corporate world, only 4% of the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies are women. The crux of the book after this, is to examine, why this is the case, how come on average, roughly the same percentage of women and men graduate from college but fast forward, 10, 15, 20 years in, when they should all be at the zenith of their careers, you only find 4% of women? Sheryl explains why and offers suggestions. What I want to do with this post is share some of her suggestions towards improving those numbers. I am hoping that when you are done reading this, you will look to do more, especially if you have chosen voluntarily to work, you might as well be excellent at it. You might as well get to the zenith of your chosen endeavour. Now to lean in to “Lean In”, Lean In has 11 chapters, but I’ll only discuss my perception and learnings from some of those:

1. The Leadership Ambition Gap: in this chapter, Sheryl talks about stereotypes and social conditioning. How women are conditioned to think about marriage and raising kids, as the priority of their adult lives. And how as a result of this conditioning, ambition and career progression take a back seat. She also discusses how women who make the choice to work should be ambitious not just in pursuing their dreams but in aspiring to leadership roles in their fields. In a commencement address given in Bernard College in 2011, Sheryl said to the women “You are the promise of a more equal world. So my hope for everyone here is that…You will find something you love doing and do it with gusto… Start out by aiming high. Try and Try hard. And I hope that you- yes, you- have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you. So please ask yourself: what would I do if I weren’t afraid, then go do it”.

2. Sit at the Table: I loved this one, because I have seen it so often, a meeting is called, men and women- colleagues walk in and we unconsciously sit on the back rows, sit far away from the head of the table, or even wait to be told where to sit. Sheryl says this behavior has been subject of research and is called “the impostor syndrome”. I don’t understand it, I know that women are more gentle, usually less forward and wired differently from men, but at work, a man and a woman are there for the same reasons- to contribute intellect, knowledge and add to the bottom line of the company… So please sit at the table. Please make your contribution to the discussion and more importantly, do the work it takes to make sure that your contributions are valuable and sought after.

Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time Mach 2013. The title speaks to success and like-ability! Photo courtesy
Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time Mach 2013. The title speaks to success and like-ability! Photo courtesy

3. Success and Likeability: I loved this one a lot. Sheryl cites research done in 2003 by Columbia Business School Professor Frank Flynn and New York University Professor Cameron Andersen on perceptions of men and women in the workplace. It was based on a Harvard business school case study of a real life entrepreneur called Heidi Roizen. Heidi was a very successful venture capitalist by reason of her outgoing personality and vast network. The professors then carried out an experiment, they got students to read Heidi’s story but for some of them, they changed Heidi’s name to Howard (making her a man). It turns out that when the students rated their stories, when it came to competence, Heidi and Howard were judged equally competent (makes sense, since it’s the same story), but when it came to who was a more appealing colleague, Howard was judged as a great person to work with, but Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to work for”. I found this really interesting since I have always been about the bottom line at work, and so yes, while I agree with Sheryl that women have a tendency to want to be liked and not do things that make them seem less likable, I just want to say “let’s take being liked in context please”. I think that your aim should be to be liked and loved by your nearest and dearest, your family and friends. I think that at work, you should work with integrity, not try to take credit for other people’s work and encourage people around you to grow- mentor and take interest, but to set out to be liked? No. I believe that being liked will be a bye-product of your hard work, intelligence, contribution and value added, and that would be earned. If you reduce and cower to be liked, you don’t get to progress and you still are not liked anyway, so I think that creates a lose-lose situation for you. I am not saying don’t be pleasant, Sheryl talks about being relentlessly pleasant- adding insistence to niceness (I like), I am just saying be professional and don’t allow others perceptions stop you from being your best.

4. It’s a Jungle Gym not a Ladder: here Sheryl talks about career progression not being a straight line but a zig zag and mish-mash, with the goal being always to improve and to be open to opportunities. To study and become better at what you do, and face your fears, put yourself forward to learn that thing you find challenging.

5. Seek and Speak your Truth: I liked this point as well, and Sheryl says it like this ” communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest” (I wish I had known this earlier, I have been known to say it as it is and with hindsight, some of those things could have been said nicer and in such a way that you don’t put a major dent in a colleague’s confidence). She also points out that if you speak your truth, you should encourage others around you to do the same, that means taking responsibility for your mistakes but it helps the team work better. She quotes Marcus Buckingham who says ” true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed”.

6. Don’t Leave Before You Leave: this would have been almost hilarious if it weren’t true. I was in a conversation with a younger friend of mine recently and she talked about not wanting to apply for a position she wanted because she would soon settle down. I think subconsciously, it was that conversation that made me think of reviewing “Lean In”. I made Sheryl’s point to her; he hasn’t proposed yet, even if he has, marriage does not make you less competent and yes, you will get pregnant but between pregnancy and childbirth, you have 9 months of productivity. (LOL, I know how that 9 months of productivity sounds but trust me, women world over have worked, performed well and demonstrated their value even with 3 months of morning sickness. I happened to be on my way to court when I went into labour with my little one). Sheryl’s point is, be present, don’t leave work before you actually do. She says “don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made”. And it’s not just a physical leaving, don’t let your mind leave as well, be present at work, while at work!

Lean In has a chapter on making your partner an equal partner, I would say in some parts of the world, this is not an option that can be fully explored, so I say, out-source what can be out-sourced and “be” the things only you can be- wife, mother, your role… In the western world where the cost of childcare is high, she says women, should weigh the cost of childcare not against current income (we are usually at the beginning of our careers at the same time as we are having children) but against future income. She discusses the myth of doing it all and mentorship as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Lean In”, I think I read it in 2 days, I loved Sheryl’s vulnerability, I loved the insight into her life that we got, and I certainly enjoyed reading every mention of Mark Zuckerberg (who I am totally fascinated with). More importantly, I think this book improved how I think about work and I close by saying I totally agree with Sheryl that the world will be a much better place when “expectations will not be set by gender, but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Ciao! Don’t forget to be awesome this week, lean in to whatever your hands find to do and do it with excellence. And let me know, are there any great books you have read and would like to share a review on my blog? Leave a comment if you’d like to, and we can carry on the conversation.



    • Aww! Thank you Rebecca! I am really encouraged by Sheryl, I loved her vulnerability and willingness to speak up on issues that affect women, mostly I love the fact that she calls out to be more. To honour our choices… Thanks for stopping by, I’ll be happy to hear about some of your favourite books in the future.

  1. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge of the book with us. I always tell the ladies that they should stand up and be counted. But some ladies are full of are full of excuses on why they are not succeeding or hard working. They should overcome self discouragement and move forward in their chosen career or trade.

    • Ha! I haven’t read that one. I must! Thanks for the recommendation, will let you know what I think when I’m done reading. If I love it as much as you do, I might just do a review of it as well. Thank you for stopping by my blog.

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