It's also hard to square the "everywoman" Sheryl Sandberg of the book with the Sheryl Sandberg who became the Treasury secretary's chief of staff and is now COO of one of the most valuable companies on the planet. In her book, she tells many stories that make her appear frazzled, nervous and insecure. For example, in one, she describes her intense reaction to being named one of Forbes' World's 100 Most Powerful Women.
Her executive assistant told her to knock it off, and she did. "I was showing too many people how uncomfortable I felt and revealing my insecurity," Sandberg writes. "Instead, I needed to simply say 'Thank you.'"
Sandberg uses these stories to show she is just like everyone else, and to share lessons she learned. And sure, this lesson is a good one: Don't undermine accolades; just say 'thank you' and move on.
And yet, throughout the book we are reminded how little she is like everyone else — one story involving her children having lice takes place aboard eBay's private jet. We don't hear enough about the qualities that got her where she is. What about her prompted Larry Summers to take her on as a protege while she was a student at Harvard? What is she like as a person, really? I cannot believe she is really a mess.
A telling anecdote that suggests she isn't a mess at all — and never has been — comes early on in the book. Her younger brother and sister give a funny toast at her wedding:
"Hi! Some of you think we are Sheryl's younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl's first employees — employee number one and employee number two. Initially, as a one-year-old and a three-year-old, we were worthless and weak. ... But Sheryl could see we had potential. For more than ten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape."
That sounds like someone who would go on to become one of the leaders of a world-changing company.
The book can also dwell on small issues despite its grand message. An entire chapter — "Are you my mentor?" — is devoted to telling women who assertively seek mentors that they are doing it wrong. Women who ask strangers to be their mentors aren't going to get anywhere, she writes.
"Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works, and yet I see women attempt this all the time," she writes. "When I give speeches, or attend meetings, a startling number of women introduce themselves and, in the same breath, ask me to be their mentor. I cannot recall a single man asking me to do the same."
As true as this may be, this is an awfully small-bore issue for a book devoted to cheering women on to greatness. Sure, some women may be going about this all wrong, but at least they are ambitious and assertive.
Even so, Sandberg made me want to buy a stack of her books and give them to my fellow working mom friends. I want my daughter, who is 7, to read it someday, although I hope these issues are resolved by the time she enters the workforce.
This is because Sandberg is right. We cannot expect to improve our lot very much if we don't go out there and do it ourselves. And that means, as she puts it, "leaning in" to our careers. Her book is at its best when it is urging us to reach higher.
"The hard work of generations before us means that equality is within our reach," she writes. "We can close the leadership gap now. Each individual's success can make success a little easier for the next. We can do this — for ourselves, for one another, for our daughters, for our sons. If we push hard now, this next wave can be the last wave. In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will be just leaders."
Trine Tsouderos is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.
By Sheryl Sandberg, Knopf, 240 pages, $24.95
Sheryl Sandberg will discuss "Lean In" with Joycelyn Winnecke, Chicago Tribune vice president/associate editor, at 6 p.m. March 28 in the Palmer House Hilton. For details, visit printersrowjournal.com.