Sheryl Sandberg’s Message for Politics

DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics, Dornsife College.

This op-ed originally appeared at Bloomberg on March 6.

Most first-time candidates for elective office learn quickly that political messaging is a lot like the old playground game of Red Rover.

Your opponents don’t bother to try to break through between the two strongest members of your team. Rather, they zero in on the smallest and weakest links in your chain and do everything they can to force the most vulnerable among you to divide.

Similarly, a politician can deliver an otherwise flawless message marred only by one inconsistency, misstep or incomplete thought, and the full force of her adversaries will be unleashed on that one weakness.

Whether or not Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. (FB), eventually decides to run for political office, she has learned over the past week or two what an unforgiving world she might face if she ever hits the campaign trail. In the days before the publication of a book based on a seemingly uncontroversial notion that women can empower themselves for the better, Sandberg’s apparently irredeemable flaws of professional achievement and financial prosperity have led a battalion of critics to assault her for a perceived inability to understand the challenges of women less successful than herself.

What’s been lost in the gender class warfare that Sandberg’s book has engendered is the idea that encouraging women (or men) to take on the challenges of the 21st century workplace with more preparation, confidence and organization seems like a fairly reasonable argument to make.

Rational people can disagree on whether “Lean In” networking groups are the best way to accomplish these goals. But there’s no evidence that Peter Drucker or Spencer Johnson ever faced this type of backlash when they ventured to offer advice on the best paths toward professional success.

As Mitt Romney and John Kerry will tell you, being rich and out of touch isn’t the biographical template for a winning political campaign. On the other hand, almost half the members of the current Congress are millionaires, which suggests that the populist push-back that Sandberg is facing isn’t an electoral disqualifier in itself.

Yet first impressions matter, so the challenge for Sandberg, if she ever considers hitting the campaign trail, is how to salvage what should have been a public-relations triumph but has devolved into mixed-message baggage at best.

To be fair, Sandberg has already devoted great time and effort to acknowledging that her circumstances are different from those of most women in the workplace. If she ever considers becoming a political candidate, she would have to show voters that her wealth doesn’t disqualify her from understanding their challenges.

If she prepares for the inevitable onslaught of a campaign, her self-deprecation would have to be augmented by an echo chamber of middle class and working-class women who can testify to the benefits of the “Lean In” approach.

Politicians of both sexes regularly appear in public with teachers, firefighters, small-business owners and immigrants to borrow biographical credibility to support their respective policy proposals. Presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have filled the galleries for their State of the Union addresses with everyday Americans whose very everydayness lends legitimacy to that president’s agenda.

An army of Lean In Circlers could provide Candidate Sandberg with the evidence she would need to demonstrate that she can work with those voters who don’t happen to be Harvard graduates and affluent technology executives.

In many ways, the worst may be past for Sandberg. Although her critics in the business biosphere may be dismissive of the concept of small-group coordination and mutual support, the same approach is ideally suited to the world of politics. The last two presidential elections have demonstrated that the age-old ideas of community organizing can be updated and upgraded for even greater effectiveness in a social-networking era.

At a time when voters are openly disdainful of their elected representatives and feel more disconnected from the political oligarchy than ever before, the most effective leaders in both parties are those who can foster a sense of connection and belonging through volunteer-driven, community-based movements.

A nontraditional candidate who teaches her followers not to wait for marching orders from Washington but to organize into small, interconnected groups across a city, a state or a country may just represent a necessary upgrade in our sclerotic system of politics.

Perhaps the chief operating officer of the largest social network on the planet isn’t such a bad person to take this communications model to the next level. When the conversation in Sandberg’s Lean In Circles shifts from personal career advancement to political and social change, the result could potentially be a transformation in the way voters participate in the electoral process.

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