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Maybe Sheryl Sandberg Should Be Leaning Out

Cathy O'Neil

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Facebook’s leadership is yet again displaying a spectacular failure to take responsibility for the monster it created. As President Donald Trump and others brazenly use the social network to spread misinformation and foment violence at protests against police brutality, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is clinging to the lame argument that he can’t constitutionally do anything -- even as other social media take action and his own top employees publicly object and quit in disgust.

Amid the chaos, I find myself wondering: What is Sheryl Sandberg thinking? How does her famous “Lean In” philosophy apply to a situation like this?

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sandberg is supposed to be the adult in the room. She was brought in years ago to assure investors that Zuckerberg would have a competent second in command. She helped generate billions in advertising revenue and make the company’s 2012 initial public offering hugely successful. More recently, she helped manage scandals involving Russian election meddling and user data harvesting by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Sandberg is also the self-fashioned champion of executive-suite women. Her best-selling 2013 book, “Lean In,” spawned a “global community” offering advice in areas such as “tips for getting a raise” or “how to get control of your free time.” The general idea is that, although there might be systemic problems, women can individually overcome them with a ton of grit and hard work.

So what’s the “Lean In” approach to this particular disaster? For insight, I turned to a video called “Dealing with Challenges as a Female Leader: Frame and Overcome Them,” featuring Joanna Barsh, director emeritus at McKinsey & Co. Here are my three main takeaways:

Be self-aware in moments of upset or challenge. Think about what in you is triggered. Pause and step out to determine what kind of experience you want to have. Engage with what you choose to believe. Get in touch with what you truly want. Be adaptable. You might not get the outcome you want but you will get the experience you choose. Turn difficult situations into learning ones or even opportunities.

Cool! So now let’s try to get into Sandberg’s head and imagine how she’s applying this wisdom.

What’s triggering? Standing by while an unhinged U.S. president sows discord and stokes violent clashes doesn’t seem to do it. Maybe it’s those pesky critics with their pleas to act responsibly? What do you truly want? I’ll go with a higher stock price. To that end, what could be better than fomenting partisan rage and mopping up the political ad proceeds? How to turn this difficult situation into an opportunity? See one and two above.

“Leaning in” seems premised on the idea that, if women can simply buy in to the sanctity of the profit motive, they will be amply rewarded in time. It leaves out important things like having genuine human reactions to bad ideas, overruling idiots and being moral.

When Sandberg says we need more women leaders, I can’t help but ask: leading what, and to what end? In this case, real leadership would at the very least involve a public disavowal of Zuckerberg’s irresponsible stance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction.”

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