When to Lean Out

10/30/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

As much as I've appreciated the dialogue around Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In this year, recently I've been thinking a lot about the value of leaning out. I'm not talking about walking away from our professional lives, but taking a strategic pause in order to build better ones. I've benefitted tremendously from my choice to step back at certain well-placed moments, and I know my career would have suffered otherwise. At the same time, I've struggled to sit down and write about leaning out. There's a very real reluctance to acknowledge the need to lean out in our activity-loving society, and it seems I've bought into that mainstream view more than I knew!

So -- what does leaning out offer us as ambitious women? First, leaning out appropriately is great protection from burn out, that insidious drain that kills so many women's careers. We women are particularly vulnerable to burning out, since there are so few socially-sanctioned limits on our responsibilities. In her recent book Wonder Women, Barnard president Debra Spar documents in sobering length how literally impossible it is to meet the expectations society now places on women. We're constantly bombarded with other people's stories about what it takes to be a successful professional, mother, spouse, friend, daughter. Too often, we internalize all of these stories, with the result that we buy in to an alluring but unattainable picture of perfection that makes it impossible to sustain a high powered career over time.

A woman who works at one of the major consulting firms told me this story. Her firm was having difficulty retaining women; since having children she herself felt overwhelmed by the pace and was considering leaving. One afternoon, a senior executive took her and several other working mothers out for a walk. He said, I know some of you are thinking of leaving. Before you do, please consider one thing: if you're leaving because you're burned out, have you taken all your vacation? Before you leave, think about what your job would be like if you took the vacation you're entitled to. The point here isn't that taking vacation would resolve all problems of a job that was never designed for working parents; it's that the women in her firm never even considered taking their vacation. They effectively chose to crash and burn, leaving their jobs altogether rather than risk being seen as weak or having divided loyalties.

Leaning out is also a great boundary-enhancing remedy for those of us who tend to leave ourselves out of the picture, focusing on the needs of others to the detriment of ourselves and our own effectiveness. I ran headfirst into this trap during the financial crisis when I was consulting at a large financial organization that was in dire straights. I was working around the clock, far from home, with cranky executives who'd just lost their bonuses and were too shell-shocked to focus on what needed doing to keep their company afloat. It was an ugly situation and I'd love to say that my meditation practice gave me the calm and clarity I needed to see me through it. I'm sure my practice did give me support, but instead of feeling that support, I was disappointed that I was miserable -- and worst of all, that I didn't like my clients very much. Where had all my compassion gone?

I was so distraught at what I saw as my failings as a meditator that I sought out one of my meditation teachers to talk things through. I told him about my lack of compassion for my clients and how much I'd come to dislike the project. So, I finally blurted, what would an enlightened being do in my situation? After he stopped laughing, my teacher said, "Well, an enlightened being would probably have quit her job by now." What?? That wasn't what I was expecting to hear. "An enlightened being wouldn't be so caught up in the neuroses that make you think you have to stay at your job," he said. "And she wouldn't be as afraid of the consequences of quitting."

That conversation was a wake up call. Afterwards I sat down and thought about what was real and what was not, and what I needed to do to be effective on that project. I put myself back in the picture. I didn't quit, but I told my boss that I wasn't going to work on site anymore, and would fly in for important meetings instead. I'm sure she wasn't particularly happy to hear that, but the compromise allowed me to continue to contribute while showing myself a little kindness. In short, I leaned out, and I have no regrets.

Finally, leaning out can give us the room we need to shine. Of course there are situations where going full-throttle and bulldozing over obstacles are the best way to realize a goal - we've all been in them, and most of us know all too well how to push through. On the other hand, truly great ideas and ground-breaking insights generally need space and time to ripen. If we don't create space for ourselves to let that process happen, we put ourselves at a great disadvantage.

A very accomplished woman I know talks about using the "strategic no" to make space for key projects. She points out that many women say yes to whatever we're asked to do until we're overwhelmed, and only then begin to say no -- leaving little room for the projects we truly care about. If instead, we said yes to the things we love and no to the things we don't, over time we'd build lives that reflect our values and support our success. Think about it -- what could you could do with the time you spend at that dull committee meeting, or baking cookies for your daughter's bake sale, or whatever nagging commitment you unconsciously put ahead of working on that idea that means so much to you? And what would the world look like if you stepped back and gave that idea more time and attention?

We must lean out on occasion if we are to lean in well. Committing ourselves to doing real work in the real world over the long haul means allowing ourselves to be human beings with limitations, acknowledge the messiness of that reality and make the the compromises we must make. And, alongside those compromises, if we allow ourselves the space to nurture, build and refine our best ideas, we will make ourselves and the world better.

None of this is easy. Building and maintaining a powerful career is so demanding, especially for women, that the idea of taking a break or ceding a bit of responsibility can feel profoundly threatening. But as crucial as it is for women with inspired goals to lean in, if we are going to make those goals a reality, it is equally important to master the art of when and how to lean out.