Beltway Confidential

Not everyone wants to be CEO

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Beltway Confidential,Business,Michael Barone,Analysis

I like to read book reviews — it’s a good way to learn about a lot of miscellaneous things quickly — and my favorite is the Times Literary Supplement or, as it proclaims in large type on its cover, the TLS. It’s British and as fluent and well edited as you might expect and, unlike every American book review I’m familiar with, doesn’t limit its contributors to people of the political left.

I’m catching up on back copies and was particularly taken with the TLS’s review of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," which got a lot of attention when it came out in the U.S. a few weeks ago. Sandberg’s book, which I have no intention of reading, is evidently a guide to how women can have it all — a hugely successful corporate career and a happy family life — and should definitely try to. She is apparently dismayed that more women don’t strive to be CEO or COO of some major company.

The reviewer, Paul Seabright, identified as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, admires many things in the book but pierces to the heart of what troubled me in the descriptions I read of it, in this passage:

“Aside from a single sentence in the introduction that reads as though inspired by her publicist, Sandberg’s book displays a blissful inability to conceive that thoughtful women, or indeed thoughtful men, might really have other ambitions and values than to exercise leadership in the kind of corporate environment Sandberg has made her own, unless it is to invest in quality time in the raising of children who might exercise such leadership a generation later. In her book women who do not rush forward to claim leadership positions are simply failing to be true to what they all secretly want. That’s doubtless true of some of them, and her encouraging these ones to ‘lean in’ is admirable, but it must also be true that quite a few of the women she comes across have other ideals than to model themselves on her.”

To put it another way, not everyone wants, or should want, to be CEO. There are many ways to live a good life. Many people with worthy talents are nonetheless temperamentally unsuited to corporate leadership (I know I am) and quite reasonably seek professional fulfillment and earned success in other ways. Corporate leadership confers daunting responsibilities which many people feel themselves incapable of shouldering. They can make contributions in other ways. Which is a good thing. Only an infinitesimal number of individuals in any generation can achieve the kind of corporate success Sheryl Sandberg has. If everyone was ambitious to do so, almost everyone would be frustrated.

A related point is made by Bloomberg’s indefatigable blogger Megan McArdle in a recent blogpost entitled Women Who Opt Out Have to Make Harsh Choices. The title is unfortunate because McArdle’s point, as I read her, is that we all, men as well as women, have to make harsh choices. Life is finite. We have only a certain number of hours on earth. As she puts it, “life is composed of tradeoffs. There are not enough hours in the day to have the marriage, the parenting experience, and the careers that we would like to have, so we have to choose what to focus on. The ‘Opt-Out Revolutionaries’ seem unpleasantly surprised to discover that these things are actual choices, with real consequences.” Women, she argues, used to have no choice in most cases but to follow what some have labeled “the mommy track.” Now they have more choices, but there are also tradeoffs. Take off time from your job to raise children, and you won’t rise as far when you reenter the work force. You get something, you lose something.

My observation is that some people who have made this tradeoff are very happy that they did, that people gain satisfaction and earn success not just from what they do at work but in their work as members of a family or a community—and that different tradeoffs and different choices will work for different people. When you are 18 you have many choices and many possibilities lying ahead of you. The choices you make and the things you do, and that are done to you, narrow down that array of choices and possibilities over the years. The world today offers more choices, which can be causes of regret but which can also be means of fulfillment.

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