What is Sheryl Sandberg trying to say?

Sheryl SandbergSome of the earliest critiques of the critiques of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial feminist manifesto-cum-rallying cry, complained that few of its hostile critics had actually read the book.

Well, reader, I have now read it.  And here’s my bottom line:  It’s a book that is fundamentally confused about what it wants to say.

Let’s start with the title. When we say “lean in,” what do we mean? As best I can decipher it, the answer is: It depends.

On the one hand, Lean In is a clarion call to a very specific set of barricades, urging women to aspire to the highest pinnacles of corporate and political life. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg writes in the introduction.

On the other, the book purports to be addressing Everywoman. “I am writing it for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously,” Sandberg writes in that same introduction. “This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just starting out to those who are taking a break and may want to jump back in . . . . This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious, in any pursuit.”

I’m not buying it.

One big hint as to the highly targeted agenda that lurks beneath this talk of inclusion is Sandberg’s statistical backdrop. Her claim that women “have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry”—an assertion that essentially frames everything that follows—draws its supporting data from only two realms: Fortune 500 companies and national politics. Among the roles ignored in this data capture: University presidents, law firm partners, investment bankers, federal judges, journalists and authors, film producers, medical doctors, technological innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit leaders.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the statistical frame is the fact that most of the female leaders about whom Sandberg writes so admiringly themselves fail to register on this screen. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem is invisible. So are White House Project founder Marie Wilson, Barnard President Debora Spar, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. (And beyond the book, to name just a few, we have the three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices—Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor; Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (in fact, half of the eight Ivy League schools now have women presidents); WHO Director General Margaret Chan; and Hillary Clinton—who would have made the cut during her time in the U.S. Senate but been dropped from Sandberg’s leadership stats during her years as Secretary of State.)

By none of this do I mean to suggest that women don’t face enormous obstacles on myriad professional fronts—or that the world would not be well served by having far more women in influential, high-profile positions. Rather, I’m balking at what strikes me as a constricted and restrictive notion of leadership. I’m uncomfortable with the word “leadership” being invoked as proxy for “leadership of a Fortune 500 company” or “leading a nation,” with the implicit assumption that this is “real” leadership, leadership in its purest, most significant incarnation. And, as I’ve written before, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the most lucrative and powerful positions are necessarily the most valuable uses for 21st-century talent and passion.

That said, for all my issues with the book, there was much about it I liked. I often found myself writing “Yes!” in the margins or underlining a point to refer back to later.  Sandberg is engaging and likeable, and in the course of reading, I came up with a theory: In the beginning, she envisioned writing a book for younger versions of herself, “high potential” aspirants on the business fast track. But from her publisher’s perspective, the book needed to be far larger—bestsellers aren’t written to niche markets, and this needed to be a bestseller. This would go far towards explaining the book’s schizophrenic nature—its bouncing back and forth between the notion that leadership means looking like Sheryl Sandberg, and the idea that it could equally well mean looking like Sheryl Sandberg’s mother—a schoolteacher who turned down the opportunity to become a school administrator because she wanted to stay in the classroom. (“My mother has leaned in her entire life . . .  . She has always contributed to her community and the world. She is my inspiration,” Sandberg writes in what was for me a whiplash-inducing conclusion.)

In a graduation speech at Barnard that contained the seeds of Lean In, Sandberg exhorted young women to “Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top”—“to lean into your career and run the world.” Recalling this speech, she rhetorically asks: “If we can’t tell women to aim high at a college graduation, when can we?”

When can we? Well, if you’re asking me, I’d say the answer is Never.

The goal shouldn’t be to impose our own choices or strategies—to decide what success and happiness look like—but rather to foster the capacity to look within, to identify a uniquely personal vision of what it means to lead. For some, it will look like being COO of Facebook. For many—probably most—I suspect it will look quite different indeed.