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Sheryl Sandberg: Leaning In to Leadership

“What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” 

Sheryl Sandberg is Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, founder of Leanin.org and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Previously, she held the position of Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google and prior to that, she was chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury Department. In 2016, Sheryl was ranked No.7 by Forbes in the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list, so why would this powerhouse of a woman ever need to ask herself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”?    

Fear of Success

Well, it’s a question Sheryl has asked herself many times, and, as she sees it, she asks it because she’s a successful woman, and women are fearful of success. Her reasons for believing this to be so come from personal experience, and reach all the way back to her school days.

Having excelled in high school, her yearbook contained the words, “most likely to succeed”, but she had these removed because she feared they would make her unpopular and she wouldn’t get a date for the prom. She went on to win a scholarship in her first year of business school, but chose not to tell anyone about it, again through fear of this level of achievement reflecting badly on her and making her unpopular. In her own words, she says, “I instinctively knew that letting my academic performance become known was a bad idea … Being at the top of the class may have made life easier for my male peers, but it would have made my life harder.”  

Fear of Being Left on the Shelf

Sheryl’s parents were supporters of her academic achievement, but they also encouraged marriage. They believed it was important for a woman to marry young so that she’d get a “good man” before they were all taken, and the fear of being left on the shelf meant Sheryl was married at the age of 24. However, only a year later, she was divorced, leaving her with feelings of “massive personal and public failure”.

Fear had driven her decision to marry, and now divorce had left her so fearful of how she’d be perceived by others that despite having an MBA from Harvard and the offer of a job in Washington, she chose to move out to California in an attempt to escape the shame.

Fear of Not Being Liked

Fast forward to 2008 and her new role at Facebook. In her first performance review with new boss Mark Zuckerberg, he tells her that her efforts to be liked by everyone are holding her back. Sheryl realized he was right when he said that pleasing everyone wouldn’t change anything, and she now says, “Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders, including female leaders themselves.”

This realization became the subject of a TED talk Sheryl gave in 2010. But, once again, fear of exposing herself and fear of telling her personal stories almost prevented her from giving the talk in the way she did. She stood backstage and agonized over whether to open up or stick to the safety of statistics and academic studies, but then she asked herself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” She spoke honestly about the difficulties of being a career woman and a mother, and the heartache of having her young daughter cling to her leg and plead with her not to get onto the plane that day. The talk triggered an avalanche of positive feedback, spurring Sheryl to use her speech as the basis of her bestselling first book, Lean In. Amazingly, she has since said, “Everyone I knew told me that I shouldn’t do this book, or talk about this, since it would be bad for my business career.”   

What Would You Do?

Sheryl Sandberg could have listened to those negative voices of fear, but she asked herself, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” – and then she did it. All of us may find ourselves facing difficult situations or decisions we’re fearful of making as leaders, but next time, try asking yourself the same question – and then go do it.