Whether you are female or male, a seasoned executive or fresh out of college, looking for leadership or paving your own trail, there are substantial takeaways from reading “Lean In” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

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At first glance, it may seem to be yet another treatise on ambition, climbing the corporate ladder and reinforcement of the archaic 20th Century pyramid model for excellence. My own preconceived notions almost stopped me at the introduction, but I am very glad that I kept an open mind and read on.

For one, the book serves as a potent reminder that inequities exist in the world all around and our own biographical lens can determine on which we focus.  Sheryl focuses on the inequalities of women and men in the work place, yet there are many others that can be discussed in the same manner; Racial inequalities still exists, so do those between the economically disadvantaged and the wealthy. What about between the academic elite and those struggling for quality formal education? Or immigrants?  Whatever the source of the inequality, Sheryl’s story is an example of how perpetuating either problem or solution to these inequalities often begins in the mirror.

Navigating Self-Doubt

A core principle of the book is that learning to navigate self-doubt is essential to professional and personal evolution. In Sheryl’s case the central theme is overcoming inequalities in the work place, but her personal anecdotes on self-doubt reinforce several other key themes;

  • Self-Doubt is not something you simply conquer, overcome and move on about your life. It’s cyclical in the sense that it can return no matter what the level of your personal or professional progress.
  • Learning to navigate self-doubt is therefore a recurring process, not and endgame. More like the circular orbit of the planets around the sun than a race with a finish line that you cross.
  • It corroborates the notion that internal leadership (self-mastery or whatever term you like to use) must precede external leadership. The idea that before you can lead the organization, you must be able to lead the team. Before you can lead the team, you must be able to lead yourself.
  • Success in navigating self-doubt, or any other level of mental excellence, is in keeping the momentum going, to keep improving the skills. Like the continuous motion of the sun, it keeps gravity alive and the planets in place within the solar system. Image what would happen if the sun suddenly stopped spinning.

Perfection Paralysis

As a recovering perfectionist, I can certainly relate to this second key takeaway within the book. Sheryl discusses the fact that people often mistake leadership for perfection and trying to be perfect can often set you up for failure;

  • The desire to get things perfect can have a paralyzing effect preventing us from, in the words of Seth Godin, “shipping the goods”.
  • Trying to be perfect, all the time, can play into and resurface self-doubt as well. That of course only creates further paralysis.
  • Perfectionism is another function of the linear destination or “pyramid model” of excellence. It’s a one-way street with a dead end.

Whether the term is Leadership, Excellence or Self-mastery, etc., It doesn’t equate to being perfect.

You may or may not agree with everything that Sheryl Sandberg poses in Lean In and that’s ok. What matters most is that there is a little something in it for everyone. Perhaps there is that one thing to bring you one step closer to sustaining excellence in your professional and personal pursuits.

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