Lean Out – a Collaborative Approach

lean-inI’ve had the uncommon pleasure in my career of reporting into five different VPs of Engineering that were women and, as a result, learned to appreciate an experience that was different from most working in high-tech. As such, I was a bit surprised and dismayed when Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and thought I should write a book or blog post entitled Lean Out – Men Learning a More Collaborative Approach. It seemed that Sandberg was advocating women in particular to behave more like the stereotypical Type-A, white American male, rather than calling out the value of diversity as described in Diversity: The New Global Mindset

Having taught K-8, I also recognize that as Reshma Saujani  speaks to in her Ted talk and writes in her book Brave not Perfect, that girls and women would benefit from having some of that self-confidence found in boys and men. 


However, after reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, I arrived at a refined perspective on how and when to lean. I then concluded that we should indeed lean in when we are the junior person at the table. This is when it’s good to inject new ideas and be heard. It came to me that I had been coached to do just that at Informix by a retired exec from IBM. On the other hand, in 28 years of management I’ve discovered there is a great empowering value if we Lean Out when we’re managing down – when we are the most senior person present. When, as a leader, we lean out, we allow our teams and more junior colleagues to be empowered by creating the space for them to lean in. When as the leader we lead in, we diminish and dis-empower our teams – denying our team members, more junior colleagues the opportunity to lean in and contribute. Wiseman speaks of the overly assertive, proactive, vocal leaders as Diminishers as we rob others of the opportunity when we lead in that manner. She argues that they continue to operate in a one brain, many hands organizational model that stunts the growth of both intelligence and talent around them. She also brings lots of example of leaders that multiply the value of their teams by creating opportunity and space for them to be more proactive and participatory – to lean in (though she doesn’t use that term for it).

It can be particularly challenging to lean out in a business that wants to aggressively move forward. As a knowledgeable leader it is often more expedient to lead into any situation and provide the solution – all with good intent – rather that allow our teams to arrive there on their own. Even when it’s as simple as starting with asking: what would you do, asking: have you thought about this potential challenge – and helping them arrive at the “right” outcome, it is still more expedient to just telling them what the “right” answer is. However, I feel that is limited to that situation and by disempowering them, we are required to be there for every decision and it becomes less expedient over even a short period of time. It can hard to resist that temptation when we are eager to move forward quickly.

The Confidence Code The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know

On another note regarding leaning in or out, in Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s book The Confidence Code – The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know they make reference to a Stanford Business School Study that revealed that women who combined the qualities typically found in men (assertion, aggression, confidence) along with qualities more typically found in women (collaboration, process-orientation, persuasion, humility) do better than others. Note, oddly, the study did not reveal this advantage when men adoption both sets of traits – though I still suspect they’re missing something there. Note, as I point out in Confidence Villains, I think Kay and Shipman miss the power that can be derived from confidence villains.


Patty Azzarello provides a great perspective on managing up, down and across in her book Rise – 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life. Her views of leveraging the strengths of her team – leaning out, while focusing on the impact you can make as a leader – including influencing across and up akin to leaning in.
The Athena Doctrine How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future
In The Athena Doctrine – How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio present from a survey across age, gender and culture what the found as shared belief in LEADERSHIP Qualities of the ideal modern leader:

  • A person who is patient, flexible, intuitive, reasonable, passionate, empathetic, selfless, loyal…
  • Across the globe, people want a more expressive style of leader:
  • Someone who shares their feelings and emotions openly & honestly.
  • They want to connect with those in power more personally
  • They want leaders who will break a gridlock through reason not ideology
  • A long-term thinker who plans for a sustainable future (not posturing for expediency)
  • Leaders who are cause driven (not self focussed)
  • Leaders that are flexible, that listen, build consensus
  • Decisiveness and resilience (considered more masculine traits) are important but the data highlighted the definition of “winning” is changing
    • it’s becoming about a more inclusive construct than a zero-sum game!
    • collaboration & sharing credit are considered more effective than aggression & control

Trillion Dollar CoachIn Trillion Dollar Coach – The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell Eric Schmidt describes how Bill Campbell built relationships of trust on a foundation of love for his colleagues and teammates. I had the pleasure of working at Intuit while Bill was at the helm and under Brad Smith whom he groomed as his replace. Bill and Brad both lead from the heart and gave very straight feedback from a place of caring.

A few months into my first full time tech job, our HR person passed me in the hallway, shook her finger at me and just said “I’ll figure it out.” A few weeks later she explained that she had studied sociology and was very confused how the youngest (by over 10 years) employee in the tech org in a hierarchical society could seemingly have more influence over what people did that the founder and CEO. She concluded it was love. She said it was clear to everyone that I would gladly help anyone in any situation and hence, they in turn seemed very happy to help me with anything I might ever need. Being compassionate and collaborative has been a cornerstone of my style of leadership and left me feeling good about my impact on others.

AFM 35 EN.jpegIn Dare to LeadBrave Work. Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Brené Brown makes reference to the humanness in the Air Force Manual 35-15 written in 1948, though the words no longer exists in the latest version of the manual, … “A discussion of feeling – how men would feel – was referred to 147 times. The importance of creating a sense of belonging was mentioned 21 times. The fear of combat, the fear of exclusion, the fear of life in a profession of arms will bring was mentioned 35 times. Love – what it means as a leader to love your men – was brought up 13 times.” Even the post World War II war machine of the USAF recognized these leadership traits as being important.

Other’s have made strong cases for leveraging traits more akin to leaning out than in as ways for leaders to achieve success are illustrated using multiple examples from today’s business world…

See also:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.