Lean Out “Down” / Lean in “Up”


Leaning Out in Pisa while remaining stableThe WEF estimates that it will take the U.S. another 208 years to reach gender equality; so, women and minorities may need to lean in for some time. As leaders though, we should lean out to create space so others may lean in.

I’ve had the uncommon pleasure in my career of reporting into five women VPs of Engineering. In my third role as VP of Engineering. I continue to appreciate the lessons I received from my mentors. My partner and our three girls continually inspire me with their strength, conviction, and empathy.

Collaborative leadership is gaining traction in market where technological changes are accelerating. In areas needing continuing innovation and pivoting, top-down management is a thing of the past, and Meghan Casserly wrote for Forbes that the Majority of Americans Would Rather Fire their Boss Than Get a Raise.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg inspired the notion of a need to lean out

I was dismayed at my first impression of  Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I thought I should write a blog post entitled Lean Out – Men Learning a More Collaborative Approach. It seemed Sheryl Sandberg was advocating women behave more like the stereotypical, traditional, Type-A, white American male. The value of diversity as described in Diversity: The New Global Mindset offers a contrast, and since the publication of Lean In, much more has been written on qualities of leaders. In her course Radical Candor Kim Scott points out that Sheryl Sandberg managed her from a place of caring. 

Should we lean in “up” and lean out “down?”

Multipliers - Helping leaders appreciate why it's good to Lean OutAfter reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, I arrived at a refined perspective on how and when to lean. The refined perspective: one should indeed lean in when finding ourselves the junior person at the table. This creates opportunity to inject new ideas and be heard. As a quiet person, I was coached to be more heard by a retired exec from IBM. In 29 years of management, I’ve Leaning Out is empowering for those I lead.

As leaders, we should lean out to empower more junior colleagues, and we create space for them to lean in. Leaning in, we diminish and dis-empower – denying our team members and junior colleagues opportunity to lean in and contribute. Wiseman speaks of the overly assertive, proactive, vocal leaders as Diminishers. She argues that they continue to operate in a one brain, many hands organizational model. This stunts growth of intelligence and talent around them, and Wiseman suggests multiplying value by creating opportunity and space to be more proactive and participatory.

The moment of lift

The Moment of Lift How Empowering Women Changes the World by Leaning OutIn 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. Leaning into oppressive situations can lift them out of their circumstances. This ultimately came to great benefit to their communities including those that had oppressed them.

Girls and women benefit from having self-confidence as Reshma Saujani describes in her Ted talk, and I have experience teaching K-8. She also writes about this in her book Brave not Perfect. VP of Engineering, Rukmini Reddy describes the challenges she faced. She describes them 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.

Many like to believe we’re past biases in today’s world. The hierarchy of deference and unconscious bias plays out on sidewalks of cities every day. Split second decisions are made by the billions on who will alter their course to avoid a collision. Choices are made based on culture, gender, age, race, attire, posture, eye contact, stride, physical size, pace, facial expression, …

As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we should recognize we’re in a position to plant new ideas. We can foster confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those that look up to us. We can help them recognize the potential within them to unlock abilities they previously didn’t realize they possessed.

Lean out by being the last to speak

Simon Sinek advocates many forms of Leaning OutSimon Sinek advises “be the last to speak” (lean out) so 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. Many cases that can be made for why women should lean in more to break through barriers. We should lean out for those we lead 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. Built 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.

Lean out and remain competitive

Leaning out in a business that wants to aggressively move forward can be challenging. A knowledgeable leader is often more expedient leaning into any situation to provide the solution. Our good intent may prevent our teams to arrive there on their own. Perhaps it’s better to ask with open questions: What would you do? What about potential challenges? It is still more expedient to just tell them the “right” answer. By disempowering others, we remain required 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.

Leaning out and in

The Confidence Code The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - Knowing when to Lean in or lean outOn 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.”

Rise as a Leader - Lean Out Down and Lean In UPPatty 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.


Leaning out according to the Athena Doctrine

The Athena Doctrine and the Virtues of different ways to Lean Out In The Athena Doctrine – How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio present survey results. They spanned age, gender and culture what the found as shared belief in Lean Out 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)
    • Cause-driven leaders (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!
      • It’s more effective to collaborate and share credit than to show aggression and control.

Lean out to create well over a trillion dollars in market value

Trillion Dollar Coach - How Bill Camplbell created a Trillion Dollars in Value by helping leaders learn to lean outIn Trillion Dollar Coach, Eric Schmidt describes how Bill Campbell built relationships of trust founded on lean-out principles. 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. These leaders could be brutally honest, but that it always came from a lean out 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)

Going counter to hierarchy in Germany

Eric Schmidt - Bill Campbell - Trillion Dollar Coach Slideshare - It's ok to Lean Out and Love

A few months into my first full time tech job in Munich, our HR person passed me in the hallway. She shook her finger at me and just said “Just wait, I’ll figure it out!” She had been confused how I held such influence given her background in sociology. Being the clearly youngest in a hierarchical society, I still managed to hold quite a bit of influence. 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 an lean out cornerstone of my style of leadership. I feel good about my impact on others – when I leading through influence rather than by edict or 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, Melinda Gates says “Love is the most powerful and underused force for change in the world.” She also describes characteristics typically attributed to women in various cultures around the globe. She points out how they have been a force of change for the better. She also speaks to her husband, Bill Gates, as having many “Lean Out” qualities.

Leaning out on the battle-front

Major William D. Swenson able to lean out and kiss foreheads on the battle field In Simon Sinek’s Why good leaders make you feel safe, he references Medal of Honor recipient Army Major William D. Swenson, who brought his wounded sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook to a helicopter for evacuation, kissed him on the forehead before returning to the “kill zone” for 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.

Air Force Manual 35-15 included many lean out principles In Dare to Lead Brené Brown references humanness in the Air Force Manual 35-15.  Written in 1948, these 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.

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 leaders 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.” Compassionate leaders are often seen as weak; however, these traits are often leveraged and underscored by some of the strongest leaders facing life and death situations as being critical to success.

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.

Lean out traits called out by speakers and authors

Well-know authors and speakers make strong cases (often based in much research) for leveraging lean out traits as ways for leaders to achieve success are illustrated using multiple examples from today’s business world…

  • Culture

     Daniel Coyle's Lean Out perspectivesDaniel Coyle describes and illustrates how a cohesive, motivated culture is the foundation of highly successful groups in The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

  • Curiosity

     Ian Leslie's Lean Out perspectivesIan 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. In Curious – The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, based on research from psychology, sociology, and business.

  • Diversity

    Tiffany Pham has built a highly successful recruiting firm around the notion that hiring diverse talent brings diverse perspectives and approaches into how everything is done within your organization. In You Are a Mogul – How to Do the Impossible, Do It Yourself, and Do It Now  she describes how she herself was able to leverage her perspectives and approaches in building a successful business.
  • Emotion

     Daniel Goleman's Lean Out perspectivesDaniel 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 in his classic Emotional Intelligence: What Makes a Leader?,

  • Empathy

     Michael Ventura's Lean Out perspectivesMichael 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 in Applied Empathy.


    Simon Sinek's Lean Out perspectives 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 in his talk, Most leaders don’t even know the game they are in,

  • Harmony – Or, lack thereof?

     Darko Lovric's Lean Out perspectivesDarko Lovric references research that shows 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” in Too Much Team Harmony Can Kill Creativity 

  • Humility

     John Dickson's Lean Out perspectivesJohn Dickson 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 in Humilitas – A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership,

  • Inspiration

     Simon Sinek's Lean Out perspectivesSimon Sinek‘s Start with Why was the third most popular TED video of all time. He makes the case that being inspired by a meaningful “why” / purpose,  people and organizations are more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others in Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,

  • Integrity

     Warren Buffett's Lean Out perspectives 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 tout Integrity as a core value. There are many things written about how one can demonstrate integrity, but integrity can be emulated – people will figure it out over time and many sense it at a first encounter.

  • Ownership

     Jocko Willink and Leif 's Lean Out perspectivesJocko Willink and Leif Babin use several example from the field and business to underscore the value of leaders taking ownership. They “own it” when thing go wrong instead of 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. It’s a follow-up to Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

  • Trust

     Stephen M. R. Covey's Lean Out perspectivesIn 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 Peterson's Lean Out perspectives related to Trust Joel Peterson, Chairman, JetBlue Airways, also underscores the critically of establishing and maintaining trust as a leader and suggests in his book, The 10 Laws of TrustBuilding the Bonds That Make a Business Great

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

  • Truth

     Ray Dalio's Lean Out princples of radical truth and radical transparencyRay Dalio describes “radical truth” and “radical transparency.” He makes the case for these as the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams in Principles – Life and Work,

  • Vulnerability

     Brené Brown's Lean Out perspectives on Vulnerability and Daring to LeadBrené Brown helps us appreciate vulnerable leaders Those who responsibly recognize potential in people and ideas and have 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. Instead of seeing power as finite and hoarding it; we know that power becomes infinite when we share it with others. Avoiding difficult conversations and situations is one option; or, we lean into vulnerability when it’s necessary to do good work.  Leaning out requires us to have some degree of vulnerability in Dare to Lead – Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts,

Lean out by whispering

CD as Horse Whisperer with Chyna - the ultimate Lean Out experienceIf 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 will lean out to slowly builds a relationship of trust. This allows that mustang’s spirit to live on. In today’s world where talent is expensive and hard to hire, develop and retain. Organizations do better when they keep alive and feed spirit, innovation, drive and willingness to take risks. In my relationship to horses and people, I have found reward in the approach of the Whisperer. Leaders are better served if we acted as Talent Whisperers.

We may 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 lean out to 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” is a win-win approach.

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See also:

Other lean out reference information

The Center for Talent Innovation’s Research & Insights has a collection of related reference material. Their mission is “to drive ground-breaking research that leverages talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture; and to create a community of senior executives united by an understanding that full utilization of the global talent pool is at the heart of competitive success.

I also keep a list of books I recommend is at TalentWhisperers.com/Books.  I continually read and learn as I feel we can really only effectively grow others if we continue to grow ourselves. American author Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

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 - A great collection of Lean Out resources

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