Why “Leaning In” Doesn’t Always Work
Why “Leaning In” Doesn’t Always Work

Why “Leaning In” Doesn’t Always Work

In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published what was to be a revolutionary book: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book teems with arresting ideas meant to empower high-achieving, professional women: that it is okay for women to be confident in their abilities and accomplishments, to embrace ambition, to build a career alongside a healthy family life and join the conversation even in male-dominated workplaces–this is all to say, to lean in. Sandberg even manages a nonprofit organization fittingly called LeanIn.org, which follows closely the principles of the book by helping women reach their loftiest of goals through education and encouragement.

On the surface, the concept of leaning in is well-meaning, poetic even. The words themselves invoke not only a call to action but also a demand for togetherness, even in the pursuit of personal growth. Often when women are encouraged to strive for their best, they are told to climb up, as high as they can go, to never look down. To lean in is to acknowledge that there is something larger to be part of, to contribute to, to lead, with no urge to fade into the backdrop. Any woman cherish this workplace harmony. But in practice, how does the act of leaning in fare?

Earlier this month, Michelle Obama spoke passionately to an enormous crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The former First Lady had much to say about marriage, work, and equality for women. Most notable, however, was her pointed criticism of Sandberg’s seemingly resolute philosophy.

“It’s not always enough to lean in,” Obama said, “because that [stuff] doesn’t work all the time.” Obama specifically highlighted the idea of “having it all”–the fulfilling career, the thriving children, the happy spouse–and how as wonderful as this sounds, it is just not always realistic. And yet, Sandberg in her book had thoroughly romanticized this frantic need to juggle. So, exactly where does the lean in mantra fall apart at the seams?

When Leaning In Is Not Enough

Upon the book’s release, many women embraced all that Sandberg had to say. Prominent journalist Katherine Goldstein was so inspired by Sandberg’s words that she invited a group of equally wide-eyed women to practice the various Lean In tenets with her. Although they generally fell within the same age range (late 20s to 30s), the members of Goldstein’s group varied wildly in terms of ultimate goals. Many sought higher positions within their current companies or fields, but others hoped to switch jobs entirely. After several months of the program, several of the women received raises at work–after choosing to take a stand and asking for them, just as Sandberg would advocate.

Then, in 2015, something incredibly life-changing happened to Goldstein: she gave birth to her son. At the time, Goldstein was enjoying her first year in the highest-paying position she had ever held. While she cared deeply about the job, she also had to attend to her newborn son, who suffered from some health complications. She cited worrying that her devotion to her motherhood would be read by her colleagues as a lack of drive. Goldstein returned from her maternity leave ready to take the reins of her career once more. Unfortunately, she eventually lost the job. Suddenly, her own illusion of “having it all” had been destroyed.

Why It’s Okay to Get Up from the Table: The Danger of Burnout

Katherine Goldstein’s anecdote of leaning in and still coming up short illustrates exactly why the concept, while noble and well-intentioned, can do more harm than good to even the most talented, ambitious women. Fortunately for Goldstein, she has ultimately ended up where she is meant to be, working as a prolific independent journalist who is “much more interested in judging my own successes in terms of personal fulfillment and positive impact on the world, rather than a fancy title and a big salary.” In sum, Goldstein surrendered the perceived need to achieve impeccable balance both professionally and personally and decided instead to pursue her own idea of “all.” In doing so, she escaped one of the biggest threats to even the strongest, high-achieving woman’s career: burnout.

According to psychologist Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, burnout occurs when a person is “no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level.” It is important to note that burnout does not happen suddenly. Some women flourish for years in the careers, beginning each day confident and excited to effect some change in the world. But then, the routine plods on, day in and day out. The children grow older and more demanding. Before long, a nagging voice emerges, demanding more. So these women achieve more–only more does not cure the problem. It simply bleeds into the old routine until eventually, it all appears the same.

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg states that women are more susceptible to that impenetrable impostor syndrome than are men. They also are much more likely to brush off any recognition of their talents, sometimes chalking their success up to things like luck. Moreover, according to Sandberg, women are much more likely to assert themselves, even when they make compelling cases.

Sandberg’s suggestion for this problem sounds eloquent and simple enough: simply get up and “sit at the table.” Fight for that high-profile job, even if you feel you might not have the ideal credentials. Offer to lead the group, even if everyone seems to balk at the mere suggestion. Again, on the surface, none of these are terrible suggestions. If a woman aspires to be a leader, she has every right to pursue that goal.

The problem arises when women are led to believe that reaching higher and higher should always be the goal–that anything less is settling. Additionally, proposing that sitting at the table is the only strategy for success suggests that the workplace runs solely on merit. A woman might do “everything right” not because she wants to, not because she knows it is the best move for her, but because she believes that more sacrifices buy her greater rewards. When those rewards never come, she feels defeated, lied to even. Thus, the burnout sets in.

Surrender the Need to Lean In

Now it is time for you to consider your own ambitions. Are you tired of waiting for things to change? Are you truly doing what your heart desires on your terms, or just going through the motions? If you need a new sense of direction and are not sure where to begin, fear not. You can schedule a free strategy session with Dr. Toni MD today.

About Dr. Toni A. Haley

Toni A. Haley, MD is a bestselling author, speaker, and certified executive coach for high performing women. She is also the founder and CEO of Williams Wellness Group. Dr. Haley is sought after by clients for her 25 years of experience in finance, healthcare, and wellness. Her proven strategies have helped hundreds of women break through personal and professional barriers, such as Perfectionism, Martyr Complex, and Imposter Syndrome. She is a proud alumna of Morgan State University and Ross University School of Medicine. Dr. Haley has committed her career to empowering women to achieve greater prosperity and wellness.