I did not know until I did some recent ferreting in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary that to the ancient Greeks the word klimax meant “ladder”—as in two poles connected by rungs that you stand against a wall in order to climb up it. Presumably, this suggestion of climbing eventually led to the English meaning of “climax” as a peak or culmination of something. Etymologically, klimax is also related to clivus, Latin for “declivity,” a slope. From there Greek got klinein, “to lean or slope,” for which the Latin equivalent is inclinare. Centuries later, klinein/inclinare became the base for a Germanic root from which grew the old German hlinen, old Saxon hlinon and eventually old English hleonian—recognizably our modern word lean.
Up the ladder
So “lean” is connected to “climax.” I don’t know if Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of the much-discussed book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was aware of that when she published the book (or gave the 2010 TED talk that led to it). But I have to admit that in the context I found it interesting that the word “lean” is as much related to the idea of climbing to the heights (“climb,” by the way, is not related to “climax”) as it is to the other basic meaning—“tending towards,” or “propping against.” I haven’t read Lean In, but I’ve watched Sandberg’s TED talk—which is 15 minutes long and by all accounts a quicker (and cheaper) way to get the information than buying the book. More than one critique I’ve seen has said that the talk is more pointed and doesn’t diverge into the details of dealing with the contradictions of how women can best work towards making their way up the career ladder (klimax!).
Do it (her)self
It’s this latter issue that brings up the practical questions Sandberg’s book raises. There are two things about her thesis that seem unarguable: first, women are grossly underrepresented at the top in every area worldwide—nine out of 190 heads of state, 19 of the Fortune 500’s CEOs, only 20 percent heading up even non-profit organizations (usually seen as a relative stronghold for successful women); second, women have to do something about this themselves—if nothing else, it would seem to be kind of a contradiction in terms to sit around waiting for someone else to improve things for you. Rather than discussing the usual-suspect glass ceilings and equal pay (though she does touch on them), Sandberg basically says that women have to stop “systematically underestimating their own abilities,” grasp the nettle (or “keep their foot on the gas pedal,” or “lean in”) and go to bat for themselves in ways that could be described as “acting more like men”—except, of course, that these should be ways for anyone who is smart and seriously ambitious.
So how useful can advice that’s essentially geared to those looking to make it in the upper reaches of big organizations be to everywoman? Is “lean in” a helpful phrase? Actually I think it’s rather a feeble one. My wwword co-founder Lucy Sisman said it made her think of a neighbor bending into the window of the car her father was driving to flirtatiously flash her cleavage—hardly the image a 21st-century captain of industry wants to project. “Keeping your foot on the gas pedal,” a rather different motor vehicle metaphor, seems a lot closer to what Sandberg intends.
It may be that “lean in” came about because she was looking for an antonym for “lean back”—what she says women do too often and too early in their careers, because they’re worrying ahead of time about how to deal with the competing interests of child-bearing, developing relationships, “having it all.” But that pinpoints one area where, perhaps coincidentally, Sandberg and I are in agreement: don’t make decisions too far in advance. My version was probably less dynamic—I was just not a life planner, so my method was more about leaving things up to the fates; whereas Sandberg calls it “don’t leave before you leave”: keep working till the last minute, don’t let fears for the future make decisions for you, don’t show your hand too soon. Lean in. And keep climbing that ladder.