Now that the dust has settled from the initial release of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, analysis of the book has moved from political and social commentary to individual conversations and reflection, all of which contribute to moving us forward as a society. Naturally, this got us thinking – does the social sector lean in? In her now-famous quote, Sandberg says that we “hold ourselves back in ways both big and small.” We believe the social sector, like some women profiled in the book, holds itself back in sometimes subtle ways. We in the sector should examine and reflect upon this self-limitation, then utilize that self-analysis to break through and propel the sector forward. Using Lean In as a catalyst for discussion, we identified three themes:

  • Imposter Syndrome: This is defined in the book as manifesting feelings of inadequacy despite many accomplishments. It takes great leadership and ability to be a nonprofit/foundation CEO; unfortunately, CEOs all too often weaken their ideas and opinions in the presence of their boards, especially those from the corporate sector. This is despite the fact that nonprofit CEOs are the experts in their respective fields and typically bring years of experience in the social sector. For-profit board members may bring money, MBAs, and networks, but they also serve on boards to learn and give back. We encourage social sector CEOs to “lean in” by acknowledging what you bring to the table and complimenting that with board members who want true partnerships with skilled CEOs who will lead their organizations with their help and guidance.
  • Sitting at the Table: This is defined in the book as being in the middle of the action versus on the sidelines. Many nonprofit executives are content to stay on the sidelines and be “social soldiers” who do the heavy lifting without any need for accolades. This is incredibly admirable but misses the point of the attention. The goal isn’t to shine a spotlight on yourself, but instead to highlight the cause or (more importantly) the people you serve, who likely have no voice of their own. Instead of being a good foot soldier, be a “social evangelist” who performs the work in ways that capture the attention of others. Beating that drum for support and putting yourself in the middle of the action are the best ways to build the army you need to change the world.
  • Pleasing Others: This is defined as wanting to be liked by peers. In the book, Sandberg discusses the relationship between success and likability, as well as authentic communication. In our blog on coopetition, we illustrate the axiom that “politeness is the poison of collaboration.” In both cases, pleasing others for its own sake can and does get in the way of achieving results in the social sector. Instead, achieve balance in your approach – diplomacy works as a tool, but truth finishes the job. The trick is to have many tools in your arsenal and to know how and when to use them.


Why isn’t the social sector leaning in? Is it because women are 73% of the nonprofit workforce, according to The White House Project? Is it because the social sector has less money to spend on professional development and leadership training? Or, is it something else? We’d love for you to share your opinions on this topic as well as other ways in which we can “lean in” more as a sector.

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