Lean Out – a Collaborative Approach

The_Leaning_Tower_of_Pisa_SB AttributedI’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. In now my third role as VP of Engineering and three unicorn exits behind me, I continue to appreciative the lessons I received from my mentors and teachers. When I look to my partner and our three girls, I’m continually inspired by their strength and conviction combined with a genuine empathy for others.

We are witnessing increased recognition of the value of collaborative leadership in this time where changes in market and technology are accelerating. Top-down management is a thing of the past especially in areas needing continuing innovation and pivoting. Meghan Casserly wrote for Forbes that the Majority of Americans Would Rather Fire their Boss Than Get a Raise underscoring the need to reconsider how we lead.

lean-in Given the very positive experience I’ve had with women in leadership, I was a bit surprised and dismayed at my first impression of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead;  I 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, traditional, Type-A, white American male, rather than calling out the value of diversity as described in Diversity: The New Global Mindset. Since the publication of Lean In, there has been a lot more written and spoken of which qualities make to the best leaders and most successful organizations. Note, in Kim Scott’s Acumen/Udemy course on Radical Candor, she points out that Sheryl Sandberg, as her boss, did provide feedback to her from a place of caring. 

Should we Lean In “Up” and Lean Out “Down?”

Cute moment at Michelle Obama’s book event

The Moment of Lift How Empowering Women Changes the WorldIn The Moment of Lift – How Empowering Women Changes the World  Melinda Gates uses examples from many situations around the world where oppressed women did need to lean in in order to lift themselves out of an oppressive situation and enable them to find that moment of lift that ultimately came to great benefit to their communities including those that had oppressed them.

Having taught K-8, I do recognize, 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 typically found in boys and men. VP of Engineering, Rukmini Reddy describes the challenges she faced in Becoming a bad-ass engineering leader: 5 tried and true lessons from a woman of color. The #MeToo movement also underscores the need to speak up, and lean in.

For those that like to believe we’re past biases in today’s world, it may help to consider the metaphor of the quiet hierarchy of deference and unconscious bias (based on culture, gender, age, race, attire, posture, eye contact, stride, direction of gaze, physical size, pace, facial expression, …) which plays out on the busy sidewalks of cities all around the world every day as billions of split second decisions are made on who will alter their course to avoid a collision.


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 shifted to believing one should indeed lean in when finding ourselves the junior person at the table. This is when it’s good to inject new ideas and be heard. It came to me that as someone who tended to be quiet, I had been coached to be more heard at Informix by a retired exec from IBM. On the other hand, in 29 years of management I’ve discovered there is a great empowering value if we Lean Out when we’re in a leadership role or 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).

As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we should recognize that we may, more often than we realize, be in a position where we could plant a sense of confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those that look up to us. By so doing we may help them  appreciate that within them lies the potential to unlock abilities they previously didn’t realize they possessed.

simon-sinek_41095Another perspective is for those of us who typically speak first to take Simon Sinek’s advice to “be the last to speak” (to lean out) so that we allow those of us who are rarely or never heard to speak (to lean in).

“I see it in boardrooms every day of the week, even people who consider themselves to be good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into the room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinion. Let’s go around the room.’ It’s too late,”

In Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic brings up the distinction between competence and confidence. He suggests that men typically have a confidence that exceeds what their competence might warrant and vice versa. There are many cases that can be made for why women should lean in more to break through barriers, what I’m proposing, in this post and others on this site, is that as leaders, whether men or women. we should lean out with regard to those we lead in order to create the space to become empowered and impactful without needing to lean in so hard. Don’t give into confidence villains, but also don’t become one.

Leaning out doesn’t equate to not needing to be candid, but when build on a relationship of trust, radical candor can come from a place of caring that allows it to be better received in Radically Candid Conversations. Likewise, listening and observing to more senior mentors and leaders also has its value.

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, and you may be missing great opportunities for more innovative and/or effective approaches.

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 focused)
  • 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 replacement. Bill and Brad both lead from the heart. Note as was my experience and is pointed out in the book these leaders could be brutally honest, but that it always came from a place of caring. As I describe in greater detail at RadicalCandor.blog, if you lay a foundation of trust, that tough love can be very helpful. See Also – Slideshare: Eric Schmidt – Trillion Dollar Coach Book (Bill Campbell)

Eric Schmidt - Bill Campbell - Trillion Dollar Coach SlideshareA 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 “Just wait, 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 I did it through 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 – when I leading through influence rather than by edict of title. I have certainly since experienced what others are willing to do for me once they realize that I will do whatever I can to help them. In The Moment of Lift – How Empowering Women Changes the World  Melinda Gates says “Love is the most powerful and underused force for change in the world.” She also describes how in various cultures around the globe, characteristics typically attributed to women have been a force of change for the better. She also speaks to her husband, Bill Gates, as having many “Lean Out” qualities.

Swenson3KissForehead copyIn Simon Sinek’s talk Why good leaders make you feel safe, he makes reference  to Medal of Honor recipient Army Major William D. Swenson, who brought his wounded sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook,to a helicopter for medical evacuation, kissed him on the forehead before returning to the enemy’s “kill zone” for at least two more trips in an unarmored vehicle to evacuate additional wounded. When Sinek asked others in the military willing to go under fire to rescue their comrades “why did you do it?” They all said because they would’ve done it for me.

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. Similarly, in their own summary of their book The Dichotomy of Leadership – Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin point out that a leader must “Care deeply about their people and their individual success and livelihoods, yet look out for the good of the overall team and above all accomplish the strategic mission.” Sometimes these traits of compassionate leaders may be seen as weak; however, they are often leveraged and underscored by some of the strongest leaders facing life and death situations as being critical to success for themselves and their teams.

Lean Out Traits

Google did extensive research together with the Harvard Business Review published in Project Oxygen. As described in Michael Schneider’s Google Spent Years Studying Effective Bosses. Now They Teach New Managers These 6 Things The transition to management requires a transformation of thought, Google has since arrived at the following six things to teach their managers:

  1. Mindset and Values revolving around Carol Dweck’s philosophy around Growth Mindsets that I came across almost 20 years ago as an educator.
  2. Emotional Intelligence as based upon Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: What Makes a Leader?
  3. Manager Transition making managers more comfortable with being vulnerable and honest as per their new manager’s guide.
  4. Coaching as revealed through Project Oxygen, the number one quality of effective managers is being a good coach. 
  5. Feedback in recognition of a manager’s potential build or destroy.
  6. Decision making leveraging effective collaboration through ensuring judgments aren’t made in a vacuum.

Many others are making 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…

  • Daniel CoyleCulture – In The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle describes and illustrates how a cohesive, motivated culture is the foundation of highly successful groups.

  • Ian LeslieCuriosity – In Curious – The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, based on research from psychology, sociology, and business, Ian Leslie looks at what feeds and starves both epistemic curiosity (which relies on effort and persistence) and empathic curiosity (which leads us to wonder about the thoughts and feelings of others). Both forms of curiosity can be empowering in life and business.

  • Daniel GolemanEmotion – In his classic Emotional Intelligence: What Makes a Leader?, Daniel Goleman, as the first to identify emotional intelligence as a critical factor in leadership performance and success, underscores how emotional intelligence can be more impactful than one’s IQ.

  • Michael Ventura copyEmpathy – In Applied Empathy, Michael Ventura not only speaks to empathy within a company as an effective means of achieving success but also empathy with customers. His business Sub Rosa have leveraged empathy to help businesses such as Delta, General Electric, Levi’s New Balance, and Nike find great success in connecting with their customer base.

  • simon_sinekIn his talk, Most leaders don’t even know the game they are in, Simon Sinek underscores the need for empathy. He explains the downsides of the traditional “how do I get the best out of my people” of the past of primary focus being on increasing share-holder value to “how do I help my people be at their natural best” which is how I, as a leader, can enable others to be more effective and impactful.

  • Darko LovricHarmony – Or, lack thereof? In Too Much Team Harmony Can Kill Creativity Darko Lovric refers to scientific research that show creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony some discord can feed creativity; naturally, the occurs best in a supportive environment of trust. A team that seems very peaceful may actually be a team doesn’t feel free to express their opinions. In my experience, discord is actually often a sign of a deeper, healthy harmony. A good leader may often elicit healthy conflict and adversity by welcoming challenges to his/her perspectives. Darko suggests that “Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as non-defensive and open responses to those risky behaviors.”

  • john_dicksonHumility – In Humilitas – A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, John Dicks on describes how his research of highly successful leaders lead him to conclude that without humility, many people fail to develop their true leadership potential and miss out on genuine fulfillment in their lives and their relationships. Leaning out so others may lean in is an act of humility.

  • simon_sinekInspiration – In Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek, (whose Start with Why was the third most popular TED video of all time) makes the case that being inspired by a meaningful “why” / purpose,  people and organizations are more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others.

  • warren-buffett-2Integrity – a core value without which all the others lose their foundation. Warren Buffett Says This Is the Most Important Leadership Trait You Should Have. Most businesses have Integrity as a touted core value, and there are many things written about how you can demonstrate integrity, but integrity can be emulated – people will figure it out over time and many sense it at a first encounter.

  • Jocko Willink and Leif BabinOwnership – In Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win Jocko Willink and Leif Babin use several example from the field and business to underscore the value of leaders taking ownership whenever anything goes wrong within their team rather than attributing it to others or circumstances beyond their control. In their follow-up book, The Dichotomy of Leadership they call out things shouldn’t be taken to the extreme, but are very contextual.

  • Stephen M. R. CoveyTrust – In The Speed of Trust – The One Thing that Changes Everything, Stephen M. R. Covey makes a strong case that trust greatly accelerates and amplifies success. Creating space and enabling others to lean in comes from a place of trust.

    Joel PetersonIn his book, The 10 Laws of TrustBuilding the Bonds That Make a Business Great  Joel Peterson, Chairman, JetBlue Airways | Professor, Stanford GSB, also underscores the critically of establishing and maintaining trust as a leader and suggests…

Start with integrity
Invest in respect
Empower everyone
Require accountability
Create a winning vision
Keep everyone informed
Budget in line with expectations
Embrace conflict
Forget “you” to become an effective leader

  • Ray Dalio.pngTruth – In Principles – Life and Work, Ray Dalio describes how “radical truth” and “radical transparency”, are the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams.

  • Brené BrownVulnerability – In Dare to Lead – Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, Brené Brown helps us appreciate that a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas and has the courage to develop that potential.  She explains how when we dare to lead, we don’t pretend to have the right answers; we stay curious and ask the right questions. We don’t see power as finite and hoard it; we know that power becomes infinite when we share it with others. We don’t avoid difficult conversations and situations; we lean into vulnerability when it’s necessary to do good work.  Leaning out requires us to have some degree of vulnerability.

These authors, speakers and leadership coaches have done extensive research and list numerous examples of how these more collaborative approaches to management have proven effective again and again.

Chyna BW BluestrokeIf we want to ride a wild mustang, we can break the horse’s spirit or we can choose the approach of a horse whisperer that slowly builds a relationship of trust and allows that mustang’s spirit to live on. In today’s world where talent is expensive and hard to hire, develop and retain. I suggest that our organizations are better served by keeping alive and feeding spirit, innovation, drive and willingness to take risks. In my relationship to horses and people, I have consistently preferred and found reward in the approach of the Whisperer. As leaders, we may be better served if we acted as Talent Whisperers.

We may, at times, need to lean in to create space for ourselves to grow upward, to challenge norms in the interest of continuous improvement, but we should also remember that leaning in one direction is facilitated by leaning away from another. If we create space for those we lead, we empower them to lean in/grow and strengthen the team. Hence the notion of lean in “up” and lean out “down” (where the terms “up” and “down” themselves are derived from a traditional sense of hierarchy) is a win-win approach.


See also:

The University of Washington’s Resilience Lab‘s graphic and research behind it captures much of what we want to enable as leaders to lean out, empower and support.

University or Washington Resilience Lab

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