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Nothing to Lose but Self Doubt

Print Edition: April 14, 2013

Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead
Sheryl Sandberg
Random House
Pages: 232

This book can be summed up as the working women's guide to navigating the workplace. It will help her sprint through the middle part of the marathon that is every professional career - the part which, for women, is usually the hardest - and reach the finishing line that women often give up on even before they start running.

Sheryl Sandberg, 43, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook, recounts her own experiences and dilemmas with great honesty, making it easy for women across cultures and geographies to identify with her. She spells out much that is well known about the problems working women face, but rarely articulated. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings," wrote Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. So too Sandberg points to several patterns of thought and behaviour in women themselves which prove major obstacles in their journey towards assuming professional leadership.

The chapter headings are particularly compelling, each one a clear pointer to the nature of the contents: Sit at the Table, It's a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder, Don't Leave Before You Leave, The Myth of Doing It All. And as she describes personal experiences, she also reveals what she learnt from each of them. Sample one such learning: "We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives."

The Myth of Doing It All is particularly relevant for working women, since Sandberg effectively demonstrates that such an ambition goes against basic laws of economics and indeed, common sense. Those who strive to do it all are doomed to disappointment. She admits she has instead embraced the motto 'Done is better than perfect' and let go of unattainable standards.

Sandberg confesses to breaking into tears not once but several times in front of her boss, as well as to feeling like a 'fraud' whenever any achievement of hers was appreciated. (She adds she has worked hard to overcome the second trait.) She discusses at length why many accomplished women baulk at taking a seat at the conference table during office meetings and instead find a corner to sit in, even when the meetings require their participation as much as that of the men who take prominent positions all around the table.

How did one of the most successful professional women in the corporate world overcome her self-deriding thought patterns and self-effacing behaviour? Some of Sandberg's suggestions towards doing so are unconventional indeed. She says, for instance, that it is okay to let the tears flow at the workplace. "Maybe someday shedding tears in the workplace will no longer be viewed as embarrassing or weak, but as a simple display of authentic emotion," she writes. "And maybe the compassion and sensitivity that have historically held some women back will make them more natural leaders in the future." Above all, in every word she writes, Sandberg's authenticity shines through.

Shweta Punj

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