Step Back

In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In became a massive cultural phenomenon, and its title became an instant catchphrase for empowering women. The book soared to the top of best-seller lists both nationally and internationally, igniting global conversations about women and ambition. Sandberg packed theaters, dominated op-ed pages, appeared on every major television show and on the cover of Time magazine, and sparked ferocious debate about women and leadership. She made the point that success in organizational life meant leaning into an issue and making your voice heard.

While her general principle applies to everyone who wants to “succeed” or “win” the race to the top, there may be an unintended consequence of too much leaning in and too little stepping back.

Credit: Jakob Owens | License: CC0
Credit: Jakob Owens

I was reminded of that phenomenon when I read Dick Cavett’s op-ed[1] in the New York Times yesterday (April 24, 2015). He reminded us how hard it was to go back to Vietnam and remember the angst and agony of that time. He recalled asking Kissinger how he would respond to a father who asked,

“What did we get out of this war that was worth the death of my son?”

Kissinger evaded the question by blaming the Kennedy administration for the war. Leaning into Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and who knows what next, can be summarized as a bunch of self-serving idiots engaging in magical thinking and then numbing themselves to the consequences of their stupid decisions while refusing to take ownership when the whole thing implodes. In war, leaning in (unleashing torrents of bombs and sending unending lines of poor kids without other options into suicidal missions) usually results in ill-conceived decisions to exercise our military might to create irreconcilable conflicts. Stepping back and considering alternative possibilities might well lead to more sustainable, more humane, and less violent solutions.

Title: VIETNAM WAR- Thanh Hoa - Women trying to salvage items in bombed residential areas | Source: manhhai | License: CC BY-NC 2.0
Title: VIETNAM WAR- Thanh Hoa – Women trying to salvage items in bombed residential areas | Source: manhhai | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

If only we could have found the courage to step back in Vietnam before leaning in.

Credit: Syd Sujuaan | License: CC0
Credit: Syd Sujuaan

The value of stepping back not only applies to military interventions; it also applies to every aspect of individual and organizational life. What does it mean to step back? Quite simply, it means stopping long enough to take a deep breath.

As my daughter says, there is power in the pause.

It means taking time to reflect on all the values inherent in any consequential decision. It requires us to get out of the flow of any current that is pushing us to a particular destination, and step back from the edge long enough to survey the scenery and ask ourselves the hard questions.

Is this a river of my choosing, or was I thrown-in by some external force?

Is this river taking me where I want to go, or might I be racing hell-bent for a swamp? Is there any thing I could do or learn that would help me navigate this flow? What impact is this raging river having on the communities it runs through? Where is the higher ground? These are the questions we ask when we step back.

It’s hard to give due consideration to those questions or, for that matter, contemplate, meditate, or cogitate effectively when we are being swept through the rapids hanging on for dear life. Stepping back from the bank helps us secure solid footing and a sense of being grounded.

Life, in most organizations, is like riding a raft through intense rapids without a life jacket. What helps is having a leader you trust and co-workers you like and respect.

Great teams take time for introspection, reflection, and renewal. These teams usually enjoy a glorious, fun-filled ride to the ocean.

Credit: Johan Arthursson | License: CC0
Credit: Johan Arthursson

Because all members of great teams actively seek ways to help each other succeed, they form deep connections and find real joy in working together as a community.

Dysfunctional teams usually make mad rushes to achieve quarterly milestones, which in the end, they miss. These teams suffer through exhausting, stressful ordeals and end up crashing on the rocks. Some people on those teams may survive by leaning in, but others fail or fall out of the raft.

So, what’s the difference between great teams and dysfunctional teams? For me, the biggest difference is that great teams take time to step back and take a hard look at where they are, where they need to be, and how they plan to get there together. They have clearly defined, and commonly held views of their vision, values, purpose, and mission. Specifically, they have clear means of measuring success.

In my experience, great teams measure REAL success on these four criteria:


  1. All systems are integrated and interdependent, all decisions are evidence-based, and all hierarchies are designed for inclusiveness—not exclusiveness.
  2. Everyone is dedicated to creating experiences that foster growth and community.
  3. Everyone feels connected to each other and to the vision, values, mission, and purpose.
  4. Everyone owns responsibility for their actions and leverages all experiences—good and bad —for learning and contributing to the greater good.

In order to accomplish those goals, however, teams need to step back and take a hard look at their organizational culture and their individual behavior. In most cases, that means acknowledging four ugly realities:

  1. We engage in magical and mythological thinking.
  2. We are more concerned with profits and pride than relationships, community, and transformational experiences.
  3. We go through most days asleep or dreaming—armored and numb.
  4. We disown, self-justify, or repress our bad behavior or experiences.

Clearly, there are big gaps between where great teams want to be and where most teams really exist.

It’s impossible to bridge those gaps while you are being swept down a racing stream of profit maximization and self promotion.

It is imperative to step back and commit to the strategies required to achieve real success. If you still want to Lean In, that’s your choice. And you may “succeed” in the apparent world. But if you want REAL success in the REAL world, then follow these four steps: Lean back. Reach Back. Reach In. Step back.

Good luck.


[1] Dick Cavett, “Will the Vietnam War Ever Go Away?New York Times, 4/24/15.


Also published on Medium.

Sign up now to get notified of new posts by E-mail