Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gave the 2011 commencement address at Barnard women’s college.  She had two key messages for the young women:  lean in and don’t leave until you leave.  Cheryl defines lean in as asserting yourself with strong language and body posture.  And, don’t leave until you leave – means that you need to shoot big and go for it rather than opt out at a young age because you might want a family one day.  Fortune does favor the bold – so she encourages women to aim high.  This advice seems practical but it misses one key point – which is that you need to be likeable and lighten up if you want to take the world by storm.  No one wants to work for an overly ambitious, cold, robot!

Why is it so challenging for ambitious women to lighten up? When I worked in investment banking, a retired senior level woman we will call Sally came back to inspire younger women by giving a speech entitled, Lighten up.  Sally began her speech with a BIG smile on her face – something I had rarely seen her do while she was employed.  Sally realized, very late in her career, that men want to have fun at work.  Sally was a working mother of three children and she said that she didn’t think she had time for fun at work nor did she want to appear frivolous.  My interpretation of her message is that women appear too serious because we are caught in a double bind:  if you are too assertive you are viewed as not feminine and if you are too nice and supportive than you are viewed as not looking and acting like a leader.  During Sheryl’s Barnard speech she shared research on leaders which found that men become more likeable as they rise to the top and women become LESS likeable and are judged more harshly than men as they succeed.  Sheryl described how she has experienced this personally of being trash talked as she has become more successful.  So, how can women navigate this double bind?

Lighten up! Humor is the fastest way to break down barriers and build connections with people. Most of the 40 successful women I interviewed for my book, Collaborative Competition™: A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing, had a good sense of humor and knew how to use it to build relationships and to resolve challenging situations.  My favorite story was how a doctor, Grace, used humor to get a new title.  Grace had been promoted to head of a department and received the commensurate money and responsibilities but no title.  Grace wanted the title but the boss refused to give it to her.  Grace relentlessly asked her boss for the title and finally one day he said, “I will only give you the title if you have a penis!”  So, Grace went out and bought a plastic penis and put it on his desk and she was finally given the title!

This example supports what the recent research on the impact of emotions has found that having a sense of humor and lightness about you will increase your power and likeability.  Positive emotions have been found to produce patterns of thought that are more flexible, inclusive, creative and receptive and will result in expanded possibilities, including going out and buying that toy penis!  So, how can you lighten up and be likeable without appearing too feminine or un-leader like?

What Sheryl didn’t say…. When you examine Sheryl Sandberg’s success more closely, it appears she influences by being likeable and lowering her ego.  A recent article in New Yorker magazine (“A Woman’s Place” by Ken Auletta, The New Yorker, July 11 & 18 2011) on Sandberg talks about how many people who work with her attribute Sheryl’s success to her ability to appear comfortable with herself at work and by NOT having to be the front person all the time.  She appears comfortable with herself because she shares her guilt for not spending enough time with her children while at the same time sharing her ambitions.  In other words, she seems imperfect and struggles with the same double bind like everyone else.  This openness about herself demonstrates a confidence that she believes there are possibilities for her without having to know everything and be perfect all the time.

The key to learning how to lighten up is getting comfortable with yourself as an imperfect person and developing what I call the emotion of lighten up.

I am defining lighten up as:

  • I assume that there are possibilities for me in my career/life
  • I have the ability to make the right choices most of the time
  • I believe that you don’t have to be perfect all the time to succeed.
  • I realize that I don’t know it all and can learn or ask for help when appropriate
  • I declare that I will not beat myself up, feel guilty, or die if I screw up.
  • I will do my best to look for the humor or learning in each situation.

This emotion of lighten up is critical as moods and emotions are predispositions to action versus viewing emotions as reactions.  The mood or emotion of any conversation is critical to determining its success.  The right conversation in the wrong mood or emotion is the wrong conversation. As a leader, you need to show up in a light mood.  Research has proven that emotions are contagious!

The path to being in the lighten up emotion more often is to develop a ritual that you can ADD to your serious striving self that will help you take yourself less seriously.  These are a few ideas to lighten up that I have found helpful and more information on them can be found in my book.

  1. Develop a resilient attitude. Martin Seligman, a Positive Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Authentic Happiness, has developed a time tested approach to staying positive even when things aren’t going well.  It goes like this:  people who make permanent and universal explanations for good events (I am smart) and make temporary and specific explanation for bad events (I didn’t do well on that test because I didn’t get enough sleep), bounce back more quickly from setbacks and get on a roll easily; versus, people who make permanent and universal explanations for setbacks ( I am not smart) and temporary and specific explanations for success (I got an A on that test because I was lucky) tend to collapse under pressure and rarely get on a roll.  Try it once a day and see what happens.
  2. Take improvisation classes. Part of the challenge of being a perfectionist or someone who is ambitious is that you tend to live in your mind and you take yourself very seriously.  Improvisation has helped me get out of my head and learn useful skills like, “Yes, and,” versus “Yes, but…” and my other favorite is to applaud your mistakes as you make a lot of them in class.  ( If you live in NYC, consider signing up for a women’s improvisation group such as Biz Prov. )
  3. Engage in safe activities.Think of an activity that you would try if you didn’t have to worry about losing or looking foolish.   For me, I took African dancing for years and I was the worst dancer!  What would that look like for you?  Belly dancing, skiing, or Zumba?  ( page 37 in my book)
  4. Celebrate small accomplishments. This is a new habit that I have added to my repertoire.  I do a celebration dance for 2 to 3 minutes on a daily basis when I achieve something small.  The idea is to do something that makes you feel good which could include a walk, calling a friend, or meditating for 2 minutes on a consistent basis.
  5. Discover your natural sense of humor. Everyone has a natural style of humor.  To help you discover it, there is a simple exercise in my (page 206 in my book ) that involves telling a story to a friendly audience of your choice (friend, child, or partner) and asking them to listen and identify what makes you funny.

African DancerIf you want to develop a new habit then you need to do it for at least 21 days for as little as 2 to 3 minutes a day.  That is what the new research on neuroscience tells us.  Take it from one who is a perfectionist in recovery; you can become more playful by doing 2 minute satisfaction dances or by taking an improvisation class.  So, my messages to all ambitious women out there – go out and play and have some fun!  Yes it will make you a more effective leader and you might even enjoy yourself…..


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