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Lean Back: What Sheryl Sandberg Gets Wrong About Success

Erin Lubin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Not everyone should lean in. In recent years, a groundswell of business literature has touted the benefits of advocating for oneself in the workplace. Broadly, much of this advice centers on removing inhibitions and overcoming timidity, and, perhaps as the baseline of it all, making sure you stand out. But something crucial has been largely missing from the conversation amid the cheery can-do-ism espoused by the movement’s support meetings, keynotes, and blog posts: Not all of us are capable of redlining our engines around the clock to promote and brand ourselves. It’s not in everyone’s nature to shout over others in a brainstorming session, or to send out self-congratulatory emails, or to continually seek to raise their profile.

In March I participated in a debate on the merits and drawbacks of self-promotion with Gary Vaynerchuk. He's the multimillionaire founder of a wine e-commerce site and of a social media branding agency with 400 employees and blue chip clients like GE and Unilever. Gary V (as he’s often called) radiates charisma and manic energy, and has made a name for himself by evangelizing promotion and self-branding online. During the debate, he was careful to explain that people can’t only concentrate on their brand. They also need to have something valuable to offer—the steak behind the sizzle, as he referred to it. But what many of his acolytes and the media seem to focus on is being like Gary V: Sizzle. Loudly.

Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg, a billionaire executive with limitless resources and social capital, argues that women in particular should “Lean In” and push back against the boys club of big business. Yet Sandberg, Vaynerchuk, and other superstars of their ilk—anomalous Ultra-Type As, hyper ambitious over-performing extroverts seemingly born to work a room—are only slightly more common than a purple unicorn. What if you’re passionate about your work and have ambitions, but for whatever reason don’t fit the profile of someone inclined to “Crush It” as Gary V’s bestseller is called (or at least not so noisily)?

For my book Invisibles, I spent two years meeting with highly accomplished professionals from a variety of industries, who've succeeded through self-effacement and by not overly promoting themselves. Despite a wide range of fields—from an elite interpreter at the UN to a structural engineer on many of the world’s tallest skyscrapers—I found that their success was consistently due to certain traits that they all shared, the primary characteristic being ambivalence toward recognition. Contrary to the prevailing advice, this group of people didn’t seek attention for themselves. How did they succeed?

Perhaps counter intuitively, in my research for Invisibles I found that some of the best leaders are those who see themselves as part of a team. They spent their resources striving toward excellence for the benefit of the enterprise they were a part of, rather than aggrandizing themselves. The quality of their work and the earned respect from their peers propelled them upward.

I recently interviewed Scott Fearon, a renowned hedge fund manager whose $100 million fund, since its inception 25 years ago, has roundly beat the S&P and has suffered only a single down year. I talked with Fearon about a compelling but overlooked element in his new book Dead Companies Walking—the Type A personalities and college athletes and general extroverts who are routinely recruited by leading financial firms often make the worst money managers. By specifically seeking the loners and quiet ones, Fearon has found enormous and sustained success: a quarter century of outsized returns at his fund. “Morgan [Stanley] or Goldman [Sachs] never would have hired a young Warren Buffet or Peter Lynch,” he told me, referencing the error in the industry’s conventional wisdom. “They weren’t hard charging or aggressive enough.”

For Fearon, a red flag he looks for in corporate management are executives—specifically CEOs—with outsized personalities, who seem intent on viewing themselves above or apart from their companies. After meeting a CEO of a decidedly blue collar business, who was dressed in a lavish bespoke suit, Fearon immediately shorted the stock in his firm and ultimately made a killing. Fearon has also repeatedly made huge returns by shorting stocks of companies—such as JC Penney—that were run by absentee CEOs. (In JC Penney’s instance, former CEO Ron Johnson insisted on living in California though the company is based in Texas.) Larry Cunningham, professor at George Washington University Law School and an authority on corporate governance, concurred. “The absentee CEO is a relatively rare breed and the instances I recall would seem invariably and intuitively to be warning signs, grounds for shorting indeed.”

Vaynerchuk specifically, and a few others in the self-branding space offer some useful advice. The problem is this advice, which will work fabulously for some but is at best a distraction and at worst a disaster for others, has taken hold of the zeitgeist. It’s important to note that the Invisibles I met with were not meek. They don’t hide in the back of the office. They do recognize there are times when one needs to step forward. But they ascended to the top of their fields with a more collectivist attitude—anathema to the individualist, cult of personality model that dominates discourse today. Much scholarly research—including the work of famed Wharton professor Adam Grant which highlights the success of altruistic workers, and the traits of first-rate executives that legendary business writer Jim Collins calls Level 5 leaders, to name just two examples—supports this notion; with the right approach, quiet excellence does get noticed and rewarded.

While there is value in being assertive and standing out, what’s being lost in the discussion are the rewards of staying focused on your craft and your enterprise. Not everyone has the inclination, ability, or opportunity to step into the limelight. The quieter professionals among us should know that opting out of the self-promotion arms race might be the best move they can make toward success and fulfillment.