The Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion

Lean In… Humanity, to Empathy, via Shared Leadership


As usual, we are lamenting the lack of women in leadership in Davos.
Leaders with traditional C-suite platforms, bloggers, speechmakers, and book writers all have views, so many of which center around the STYLE of women vs men. Most prominently, Sheryl Sandberg is telling us to “Lean In” to power in her forthcoming book:

“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 internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

Sure, some people need style coaching, but confidence is not the primary reason many talented women (and men) opt out of leadership. They do so because because they feel a strong, natural desire to ensure their children (who exist now) have the best possible start with present, loving parents. This reaction is only human. Corporate organizational constructs so often make it hard to spend enough time at home, mentally and physically.

I see the potential for a very different solution: Shared Leadership. “Job sharing” has been a solution for working parents/mothers for a while, but senior leaders are not often given this option. It’s viewed as risky, although 1+1=3 so much of the time in these situations with high performing people. Even at high levels, there are some wonderfully successful examples of innovative organizations led by Co-Presidents and co-CEO’s – Whole Foods, Riverside Private Equity, Nottingham Spirk….all of which happen to be led by men. Imagine what this model could solve for parents (especially women) during some of the most vibrant years of their professional lives, when children are growing up (and aging parents may need help too). With partnership at work and at home (i.e., someone who has your back), women (and men) could honor both their humanity and their desire to make a difference in the world. Partnerships are not easy or automatic, but there is a lot to be gained by learning what makes successful shared leadership work.

If you are a parent, few people have taught you to empathize better or more than your children. If we can find ways to support talented people who “Lean In” to ALL THAT, we’ll be growing more empathetic leaders who help others grow and cultivate courage instead of fear.

9 Responses to “Lean In… Humanity, to Empathy, via Shared Leadership”

  1. Susan Colby

    I shared a job at two points in my career: one of them was simply a way to work part-time at a time in my life when I needed more flexibility. The arrangement worked well for the company and for the two of us who were job sharing. The second time, I led a business with a co-President (who was male). We co-led because we needed deep scientific skills and strong business acumen. I did some of the best work I have ever done. With a bit of work on role clarity and an investment in communication, the organization and our partners had the best of both worlds and a set of capabilities and diversity of styles they never would have been able to find in one person. It was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life: tremendous business and social impact and outstanding professional learning for my co-President and me, as well as our entire team. Although it was a bit unconventional, courageous leadership made it happen and the results were stellar.

  2. Alexis Abramson

    Collaboration is the root of innovation. The problem is that in our hierarchical society, collaboration is oftentimes difficult for three reasons: we’re afraid to counter our bosses, we’re not interested in collaborating with the less experienced, or we’re in competition with our peers for promotions and recognition. A true shared leadership position frees us from these impositions because we can freely and openly share, critique and leverage great ideas that otherwise might not see the light of day. Why would anyone take issue with that?

    And by the way… I know lots of women that “lean in” – we need to move away from this preconceived notion that the problem is a lack of confidence – we’ve got other bras to burn!

  3. EVB

    What exactly is Sheryl Sandberg advising us to lean into? The empathy-deficient culture currently dominating so many of our organizations (see Wall Street)? Sandberg is urging us to be more “self-confident” and “aggressive. I worry that these are actually code words for “narcissism” and “sociopathy,” which studies have shown currently characterize the leadership of many of our corporations and are the very things that are bringing us down. This leads me to conclude that it is possible that everything will only get worse if women do, in fact, choose to “lean in.” It is exactly NOT leaning in that will allow us to turn this all around — from economic depression to growth and innovation.

    Now, moving on. What is the solution? No one seems to be talking about real, practical solutions that don’t require major cultural shifts and unrealistic political will. Until now. Shared leadership — it’s a win-win. Let’s keep talking about this. Thank you for this post.

    • Susan Colby

      I feel strongly that we need to invest in making organizations more empathetic and more supportive so everyone can do their best work. Shared leadership — which actually happens in every strong organization, even when they aren’t sharing a single high-level role — is one form of that. At the same time, I think Sheryl Sandberg has some really good points to make. I have worked with many women over the years who decide they can’t work once they have kids (even before they have kids and even when work places are supportive). Of course, everyone should make their own choices. But many of those women find it very difficult to return to the workplace later and resent the fact that they are not able to find full satisfaction at home. And it is different to raise children than to be in a work place environment, even though we learn from both situations. Often the balance of power in relationships at home is skewed due to the very different financial contributions that people may be making. Additionally, when women opt out and are not in postions of power, e.g. heads of corporations, elected officials, men are the ones making decisions that affect all of our lives. We all have to lean in to make the work place one in which everyone can contribute. And women (and men) do need to make sure they are asking for what they deserve. We also need to have policies that support high quality child care and early childhood education so women and men can go to work with the knowledge that their children are in safe and nurturing environments.

  4. jackieacho

    All good points. Thanks very much for sharing. We absolutely need high quality, nuturing early childhood education and friendlier family leave policies. We desperately need women’s perspectives at the highest levels of power and decision making (in part because we often speak for children as well).

    Leaning in without losing balance should be the goal. That means different things depending on the person and situation, but perhaps it feels similarly – personal growth and impact without compromising relationships. In my own experience, it meant leveraging the skills and network I’d buit as a partner at McKinsey & Company into my own business, so I could manage my time better, work more locally from a home office, and choose clients carefully. Opting out of work would have been difficult, even suffocating, for me personally.

    Lately, leaning in without losing balance also means seeking and accepting leadership platforms on terms that are not only great for organizations, but also in balance with my current family situation (i.e., shared leadership/partnerships at work and at home while our kids are still relatively young at 9 and 10 1/2). The fact that these leadership opportunities too often come with such painful tradeoffs is a man-made problem, not inherently necessary or optimal for leaders and their organizations. We must solve this issue at the same time as we lean in to power. Shared leadership is an underleveraged part of the solution.

    Not pursuing leadership opportunities at all or leaning in so far as to fall in/away from the relationships that matter most – suboptimizes what we all are capable of contributing in this world.

  5. EVB

    I agree with Susan. Opting out is not the solution — not the solution for women’s mental well-being, for their financial health, or perhaps most importantly, for the organizations that don’t get to have them. However, I don’t buy the argument that Sandberg is making — that the reason women are not in more leadership positions is that they are not confident or aggressive. I would bet that most women are perfectly confident and aggressive in the appropriate ways. Though I am starting to think that maybe women are not at the top because they are not willing to play dirty. Honestly, I think when you have children and are responsible for bringing vulnerable little people through this difficult world, little people who remind you of whom you once were, there are things that you are perhaps no longer willing to do. It is also interesting to note that the leadership positions that are the most powerful — those in Wall Street and politics — are perhaps where the playing is dirtiest.

    So, I amend my position. It is possible that Sandberg is right — women are not in more positions of power because they are not willing to do what it currently takes. In fact, they are willing to give it all up — their mental well-being and financial health — rather than do that which threatens their integrity. But the answer is not more of the dirty. Not for women and not for our world as we hope to leave it for our children.

  6. EVB

    What leadership in powerful organizations often looks like. Count me out.

    Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.

    Money quote:

    “How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

    What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

    Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.”

  7. Lynne G

    Jackie, thank you for starting such a rich discussion. All of the comments are so thoughtful and relevant to women/family and career choice dilemmas. I must admit, my “pre-kids” career leadership lacked much of the empathy that you have described. After having twins at age 40 and returning to the workplace, I began to think differently. Our Corporate American culture needs a lot of work in the areas of empathetic leadership and work/life balance. When Sheryl Sandberg speaks about “leaning in”, she also mentions that women of our generation have “failed” in placing more women in positions of power. So many of us have done what we’ve always known and that is to play the traditional corporate game and fit into a mold that is unhealthy in so many ways to ourselves and our families. She challenges new college graduates and aspiring leaders to think bigger and differently. I don’t think so much that we have failed, but that we are still working to find better solutions and hold true to our values and economic realities. It’s a big elephant, but worth pursuing. Thanks for being a leader in the charge!

  8. jackieacho

    Let’s keep watching for co-CEO’s and the innovative results of the organizations they serve. In an email from Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp on Feb 13, 2012: “Yesterday the Teach For America Board of Directors appointed our President Matt Kramer and Chief Operating Officer Elisa Villanueva Beard co-CEOs of Teach For America, effective March 1.”


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