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Sheryl Sandberg on How Having Her Self-Confidence Shattered Made Her a Better Leader

Krista Kennell /

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, implored women to bring their whole selves to work, not just their public and professional selves. If this was tough advice to take from one of the world’s most successful women, it was just as hard for Sandberg to live up to her own standard.

When Dave, her husband, tragically died two years ago, Sandberg was suddenly utterly vulnerable, prone to tears at any moment, and bereft of the public self-confidence she had spent a lifetime building. “I did not think I could do my job,” she said.

“I had no choice but to bring my whole self to work,” she told me in an interview.

Sandberg wrote her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, to explain how resilience can be built, and how happiness can come after grief. The book, and the support groups she launched alongside it, offer those, but they also underscore something bigger, about the kind of leadership companies of the future need: connected, and at times, vulnerable.

Vulnerability is hardly a trait many leaders race to embrace; it is not the first word that comes to mind thinking about Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Britain’s prime minister Teresa May, or Hillary Rodham Clinton throughout her presidential campaign. Silicon Valley leaders are more reputed to woefully lack it than embrace it, and the election of Donald Trump as US president hardly suggests we are moving toward a deeper understanding of the benefits of emotionally intelligent and forgiving leadership.

But vulnerability can build deeper relationships and loyalty, enabling people to actually bring their whole selves to work. According to the Stanford belonging project, people who feel disconnected are more likely to have significant health problems, and are more at risk for self-harm and other impulsive behaviors.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sandberg’s boss and the founder of Facebook, told TIME magazine that grief, and its accompanying vulnerability, had changed Sandberg in this way. “A lot of things used to be ‘Urgent, please call,’” he told Time. “These days they’re not. But I think that that’s made her a better leader.”

Sandberg agrees with this. She said she cries a lot more, but also feels much more deeply connected to her colleagues. “I am much closer to the people around me than I was,” she says, and that’s saying a lot, given that she felt pretty close to them already. She is more vigilant about checking up on people who are facing anything from an illness to the loss of a loved one, and she keeps her cool more.

“I am way calmer,” she says, “The small stuff—sure it bothers me—but not as much as it did. I have an ability to put things in more perspective.”

Through the worst possible set of circumstances, Sandberg is modeling what she stressed was necessary in Lean In: a broad range of leadership skills that stretch beyond the image of a strong, decisive male working 20-hour days and battling the competition (though some of that is of course needed, too).

“Leadership in women has to be ok. Emotion in men has to be ok,” she says. These are pairings people need to see to believe, says Sandberg, just like female leaders, and happiness after grief.

“If people see that it works, that you have deeper relationships, you have more and more commitments to each other, if they see it, they will do it,” she says about vulnerability at work.

What she does differently

Before Dave died, Sandberg did not shy away from trying to help to people facing personal challenges.

“I would say ‘I am so sorry you are going through this’ and ‘is there anything I can do?’ or, ‘I know you are going to be ok,’” she says. She was a doer and a fixer; in times of crisis, she sought to problem-solve.

Sandberg has come to realize that grief cannot be fixed. Crises can look more complicated on the inside. She tries not to use pat phrases such as “it will all be ok,” which can sometimes hurt the people they are meant to help.

“I don’t know it will be ok,” Sandberg says. Acting as if one does “really minimizes and does not acknowledge the pain they are in.”

She also learned that avoiding the subject—something she used to do because she worried she might remind the person of what they were going through—made no sense. “I know how absurd that is. You can’t remind someone they are going through cancer treatment, you can’t remind someone they just lost a child or a brother or a husband or a wife.” Now she makes sure to acknowledge the person’s pain and offer support.

She has rethought how she helps people manage their work in times of stress or trauma. Before, she would say, “take whatever time you need,” or “don’t worry if you can’t do this project, how could you with everything you’re going through?” Now she offers that, but she also is quick to pay compliments where due, in situations she might not have before.

This comes from feeling like she had nothing to offer at work and needed support she had not needed before. She told the Harvard Business Review:

I realized when I came back to work, I was so overwhelmed with grief, I could barely get through a meeting. And so when people said to me, “Well, of course, you can’t really contribute, look at all you’re going through,” my self-confidence crumbled even further. I felt that I lost Dave and I was going to lose my ability to say a coherent sentence, much less do my job.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg helped, she said, by remarking on smart comments she made in meetings. “I didn’t need those comments before,” she said. But she did after Dave died.

Now she tries to do that for others. “There’s the initial helping them get through what is pure grief, then there’s the rebuilding, helping them laugh, telling them we still believe in them.”

Living her message

Lean In was important in accelerating conversations that needed to be had about women’s self doubt, as well as the institutional barriers that hold them back. But it was tinny in tone, and seemingly deaf to millions of women who felt themselves leaning in every day, with less success.

Option B is beautiful and moving, but sometimes broken up by studies and statistics. Perhaps this is a way to justify her claims that we can find happiness after despair, and that she is aware of her stratospheric good fortune. It’s almost as if every time we get too close to Sandberg, data is brought in to protect her from scrutiny.

Still, in offering the book, and all the embedded vulnerability that comes with it, Sandberg proves she is not merely preaching about multi-dimensional leadership, she’s living it. Lean In was the first stab of that. Option B is a tragic second act, with a message of growth, not despair. She’s modeling what it looks like to turn up at work a big mess of emotions and self doubt, and allow people to help her muck through it. It’s not an image corporate America actively peddles, but it should be.

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