About a week ago, I was browsing news headlines, waiting for my coffee to brew, when something caught my eye. It seemed Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had made some comments reflecting on “Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead,” the best-selling book that has generated a great deal of discussion.
Before I could even read them, I saw the headlines:
“Sheryl Sandberg Admits She Got It Wrong…”
“Too Little Too Late: Sheryl Sandberg Apologizes For Lean In…”
Intrigued by these rather strong reactions, I did some digging, first reading the Facebook post by Sandberg that started the firestorm. And let me say, it wasn’t at all what I expected. She took the opportunity on Mother’s Day to bring to light the challenges faced by women who are raising children on their own, acknowledging that it was a struggle she didn’t understand before losing her husband a year ago.
“For me, this is still a new and unfamiliar world. Before, I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home… For many single mothers, this is the only world they know. Each and every day they make sacrifices, push through barriers, and nurture beautiful families despite the demands on their time and energy.”
Not quite the mea culpa I expected.
She goes on to write, “single moms have been leaning in for a long time — out of necessity and a desire to provide the best possible opportunities for their children,” and urges leaders to rethink public and corporate workforce policies to accommodate the needs of all types of families.
To me, it sounded like someone who has experienced a change in perspective, and now is working to right a wrong that exists in our society.
But to others, it was evidence that the entire premise of ‘Lean In’ is flawed. One blogger accused her of backtracking, another suggested she was getting her just desserts for “shaming women,” and one went so far as to say that before her husband died, Sandberg wasn’t “really a parent,” because she was on the road much of the time.
I checked my phone and confirmed that we were, indeed, still in the year 2016, and not 1926. But it doesn’t feel like it. The moment a leader — or, I should say, a female leader — adjusts her position, the reaction is to question her entire philosophy and, to me, that is downright reckless. In the book, Sandberg discusses the challenges in managing both a career and motherhood, the obstacles that hold women back, and how they can be overcome. To discredit everything she accomplished in starting a critical dialogue (whether you agree with her or not) is doing a huge disservice to all of us. I started to fear I was in the minority with this thinking, until I read some of the comments on a particularly judgmental LinkedIn Pulse piece.
“I don’t think it is ever too little, too late for someone to discover a new empathy and understanding about a topic they previously may not have fully comprehended. That is what life is all about — living and learning.”
“I think it took courage for Sheryl to look back on what she wrote and share that she has now learned so much more through her life experiences and probably would have produced something a little different.”
“She’s going through a huge life event. Maybe this is a humbling experience that women can observe and apply to our lives.”
And just like that, my faith in humanity was restored.
I thought of a profile I recently read about Kat Cole, group president of FOCUS Brands (and best known for her work in transforming the Cinnabon brand), who believes it is through constant growth that we are able to thrive. When a leader is judged, criticized, and questioned for changing his or her position, it creates an environment where people are afraid to evolve, said Cole, which is why it’s so critical to grant both ourselves and others permission to change. “Leadership is about constant evolution and transformation — the ability to choose your future and shape your path every day.”
And to me, that means never hesitating to share a new perspective, even if it means opening yourself up to criticism. Because if we’re really going to evolve as a society, we must believe that it’s never too little, too late.