Before You Lean In, Own Your Space

Fifteen months ago, Sheryl Sandberg‘s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead came out and took the country by storm. Grounded in research and filled with personal anecdotes, the book sparked a national conversation about power, privilege, and the distribution of responsibilities between women and men in the workplace and at home. I’ve spoken with many people (mostly women but also a few men) who were inspired by the book and just as many who felt it contained useful insights but fell short in important ways. In this post, I’d like to share the very first reaction I had to the book and why I think it’s relevant to all of us.

Women exec upright on table

My reaction to the book began with the title. What does it mean to “lean in?” Sandberg recommends this to women as an alternative to leaning back—in the Board room and around conference tables where important decisions are made. Leaning in means speaking up, stepping forward, and being willing to take on jobs with loftier titles and bigger responsibilities. To me, this is valuable advice to women who aim for larger impact and recognition. It’s also useful for the smaller but still significant percentage of men who hold back and remain quiet when the stakes are high.

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As a metaphor for claiming your place at the table, leaning in works well.

However, on a purely physical level, leaning in strikes me as woeful advice. When you lean your body in, the upper half moves forward before the lower half. It’s a posture of imbalance, one that actually diminishes your power and flexibility in responding to life’s challenges. Instead of leaning in, why not simply sit or stand upright? If you watch many powerful leaders around the very conference tables Sandberg describes, you’ll find they are neither leaning back nor leaning forward but upright. They hold the same posture while standing or walking. This posture evokes respect because it conveys composure and unflappability. When you stand upright, the message you are sending to yourself and others is clear:

I own this space.

Wherever you go and whatever you are doing, you have a right to be there. You belong. This is not something that other people can give you. It’s something that you claim for yourself by the way you hold your body, the words you use, and the full expression of your presence.

I own this space.

Explore the concept now. Imagine a circle around you that extends two feet in front of you, two feet behind you, and two feet to each side. This is your space. You don’t have to ask anyone for permission to be here. It is yours.

I own this space.

Many women apologize for being where they are. “I’m sorry,” they say, while crossing paths with people at the grocery store, walking past others in a narrow aisle at the library, or moving their chair so someone can walk by in the conference room. It’s an innocent remark, often made habitually and unconsciously. It seems like a polite alternative to “excuse me.” Except that it’s not. Unless you bump into someone or step on their foot and it’s clearly your doing, “I’m sorry” means that you belong in this space less than the other person. This is a subtle yet severe diminishment of your power, one whose impact grows through repetition. In most situations with most people, there is no need to apologize.

I own this space.

Ironically, it’s also great advice for men who have no trouble being assertive. You own the space around you—and only that. You do not own the space around women—or other men. When you interrupt a women who is speaking or claim credit for her idea as your own, you do damage not only to women, but to the world as a whole. A world in which people, women or men, don’t feel like they own their space is less safe, less productive, and less thriving than one in which all of us own our own space.

This is why, when I first saw the cover of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and every time I hear someone talk about it today, a simple thought crosses my mind:

Before you lean in, own your space.