Sheryl Sandberg, Iran, and Leading Well

I can acknowledge that I am late to the party, but I’m reading Lean InIt’s fantastic.

There is a ton to think about in this book, and I have a few pieces brewing on the topics within, but there was one passage that has really struck a chord – it fits into something that I’ve been wrestling with myself, the kind of idea that has a few pieces, and they don’t quite come into focus until suddenly, they do.

Let’s start with that passage, it’s on page 132 in my copy:

After the married women spoke about how hard it was to balance their lives, the single woman interjected that she was tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously. She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack. She argued, “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game – because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!”

(Just a sidebar here, I thought about cutting the last part, from ‘because going to a party…’ because I think it subsumes the agency of the single woman and sort of reduces her desires into an early-game version of the married womens’ desires, but I’m leaving it since that’s how it was in the book.)

One of the other pieces of this suddenly-in-focus idea comes straight from the headlines of January of this year. Remember when the French President Hollande turned down a State Lunch with Iran because they demanded that the meal be served without wine?

Here’s a New Yorker piece on the event. It’s a good piece, and approaches this event from the perspective of hospitality – to what do we owe our guests? It is, after all, that the Iranian delegation placed their request out of religious observance – not merely to inconvenience or to bully the French.

As I do, around this time I grilled my friends about the topic – have you heard about the French Lunch? What do you think about the Iranian argument? They were mostly avoidant, being very polite and generally pretty proper. The impression I got was that in a general way, it’s assumed that religious beliefs tend to trump social norms in cases like this.

One voice that really resonated with me with David Plotz, speaking on a podcast (the part I’m referring to starts at 1:00:08) – Plotz sees this debate not as one of religious freedom, but rather in terms of what it means to lead a Good Life; “…the things that you claim as fundamental to you.”

I don’t always agree with Plotz, but here I think he is on the right side.

This idea of a Good Life is a highly personal one, and not something that we can quantify or really lend objective judgment to. A person’s life, and the goals that they have for that life, and the things that they hold dear, are deeply personal and generally not subject to debate – especially not at work, and especially not by someone who thinks seriously and deeply about leadership.

Like most of what I write here, this is geared toward folks leading teams remotely, working with people who they rarely see in person, how to make that work in a way that works. This piece is applicable to folks in traditional workspaces as well, but is especially important for remote teams.

What Iran, Sandberg and Plotz have helped to show me is that I’ve been making big assumptions about what a Good Life is, and in bringing my own sensibilities into my work, I think I’ve probably failed to serve some of my peers as well as I could have.

I think that many of us unintentionally give preference to certain ideas of the Good Life in a way that unreasonably ranks other ideas of the Good Life lower on the totem pole. Imagine at your workplace a colleague says that they cannot make an off-hours meeting because their little boy has a recital. Now imagine the same colleague says that they cannot make an early meeting because they have a brewery tour to go to.

We give preference to a particular vision of what a Good Life is – it’s kids, it’s a mortgage, it’s the picket fence and a rescue dog. This is not everyone’s Good Life.

There are arguments to be made to prefer or reject any vision of the Good Life over another – maybe having children and raising them well is good citizenship. Maybe having children contributes to the global overpopulation problem.

As a leader it is not your place to give preference to anyone’s conception of the Good Life.

Unfortunately, you probably are, though. I know I have. How many times have I assumed that a single member of my team will work on a holiday because other folks have kids out of day care? In simple terms, I was bringing in my own idea of a Good Life and using it to give preference to folks on my team.

On one level, giving up my own idea of the Good Life is in part setting aside my own ego. After all, I chose my own idea of the Good Life, I want to believe it has value; to accommodate other ideas of success means acknowledging that at the worst I might be wrong or, (gasp) there may be multiple ways to be right.

In addition to ego, there has to be a rejection of judgment – and this is probably the hardest part of all. In making space for and allowing for folks on your team to conceive of and pursue their own idea of the Good Life, it means defending that pursuit in ways that, at least at first, may seem very strange to other folks who are coming to work with their own ideas around the Good Life.

You can see more clearly now why that last part of the Sandberg quote does not really advance my argument – if the single woman had simply said,  “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game,” she and I would be more simpatico.

Using the party as a route to marriage, etc, simply acquiesces to the existing status quo Good Life.

If a member of your team is productive, and efficient, and creating the results that the team needs to find success, as their leader it is not only your job to allow them to pursue their own vision of the Good Life, but to defend that vision against other members of the team, and even other people within your organization.

The reason this is more important for remote teams than for geographically co-located teams lies in the trust remote teams need in order to be performant. Working without daily schedules or shared office space means that, as a leader, you have to trust your team explicitly, and believe that they’re making the best choices for themselves and for the organization.

The pursuit of the Good Life has to be included in that trust. In a remote environment especially, knowing that you respect their choices and will stand up for them is a big piece of serving your team well.

I don’t have a great call to action on this one. It’s hard to step outside of my own idea of the Good Life. I’m starting to see things more clearly now, and I hope that you’ll think on this too, and try to recognize when you’re unintentionally bringing in your own idea of the Good Life in a way that’s reducing the Good Life of others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s