The ongoing three-way public-relations car wreck involving Washington, Facebook, and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s powerful C.O.O., begs a question of America’s esteemed managerial class. How has someone with such sterling Establishment credentials—Harvard University, Harvard Business School, the Clinton administration—managed to find herself in such a pickle?
The answer won’t be found in the minutes of Facebook board meetings or in Sandberg’s best-selling books, Lean In and Option B, which cemented her position in the corporate firmament as a feminist heroine. Rather, it starts all the way back in 1977, when Sandberg was just eight years old and the U.S. economy was still recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the end of World War II. That’s the year that Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik wrote an article entitled, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in America’s most influential business journal, Harvard Business Review. For years, Zaleznik argued, the country had been over-managed and under-led. The article helped spawn the annual multi-billion-dollar exercise in nonsense known as the Leadership Industry, with Harvard as ground zero. The article gave Harvard Business School a new raison d’être in light of the fact that the product it had been selling for decades—managers—was suddenly no longer in vogue. Henceforth, it would be molding leaders.
Which brings us back to Sheryl Sandberg, the ostensible exemplar of what Harvard Business professor Bill George calls Authentic Leadership. Before the wheels started to fall off at Facebook, Sandberg was profiled in George’s book, Discover Your True North, as a model of the kind of authentic leader H.B.S. claims to churn out. Sandberg, after all, has led something of a charmed educational and corporate life, palling around with the likes of Larry Summers, working at McKinsey & Company (which also claims to be a leadership-factory nonpareil), then Google, and now Facebook. Indeed, there is no question that Sheryl Sandberg is one of the premier managers of her time—she oversaw stupendous growth of ad-driven sales organizations at both Google and Facebook. But as new evidence emerges regarding Facebook’s maddeningly foot-dragging response to scandals ranging from data abuse to election interference, the pertinent question is whether she was ever really a leader.