I loved Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. So I’ve been thinking about it again in light of a book I just finished, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy.
If you’re not one of the 39 million people who’ve viewed Cuddy’s viral TED talk, you might not know that she became famous for her research on “power posing.” Although some aspects of this research haven’t held up to replication, both her work and other studies have presented convincing evidence that adopting powerful postures (open and expansive) instead of powerless postures (constricted and clenched) causes people to feel more powerful. In other words, body language doesn’t just affect the way others perceive us – it also affects the way we feel about ourselves.
Cuddy’s book expands on this theme and explores an array of social psychology research on the body-mind effect. Her aim is to help us reach a state of presence – in which we believe and trust in ourselves and our own stories.
Reading Presence made me think about how very physical the metaphors in Sheryl Sandberg’s book are – starting with her title phrase, lean in. What does “lean in” really mean, anyway? Sandberg doesn’t define the phrase, but she uses it this way:
In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.
Consider all the physical phrases: Lean in. Raise your hand. Don’t pull back. And then, there’s Sandberg’s other signature admonishment: sit at the table! – which she came to after observing women squandering the opportunity to physically place themselves at the center of power by sequestering themselves on the side of the room.
So what can we learn from Amy Cuddy to make it easier to lean into our lives? First, lean in doesn’t mean to scrunch in. Cuddy is best known for poses like “the Wonder Woman” that can be done briefly in privacy before, not during, a challenging event. But even when we are in the middle of a presentation or other challenge, we can keep our bodies as open and expansive as possible. Second, whether we rouse ourselves to “sit at the table,” or are forced by circumstances to take the last seat available at the back of the room, it helps to understand that how we fill our seats affects how we feel in them.
The nonprofit sector – where women generally don’t have a numbers problem, but sometimes still have a power problem – is ripe for the wisdom of Cuddy and Sandberg. How many times have you attended a nonprofit meeting or event where there were significantly more chairs than attendees – and yet, those present were clustered not in proximity to the speaker or facilitator, but in other parts of the room? It’s time to consider the effects of our bodies on our minds – and then sit at the table, fill the front row, and speak up, with confidence.