Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is the title of a New York Times bestseller by Sheryl Sandberg. The book is an invitation to women to ‘lean in’ to their power and potential and grow into the strong leaders they were created to be. This idea of women leaning in in business and many other areas is a hot topic these days and while this offer sounds intriguing (and a bit terrifying) to me, the title mostly reminds me of one of my favorite experiences of our time while stationed in Manhattan. It was the day I learned what it truly means to lean in.
During the last year of our tour in Manhattan, my husband’s Afghan interpreter received his special immigrant visa and was able to move to the United States. Soon after his arrival on American soil, he took the train down to stay with our family for a few days and we took him to see the sites in New York City. Our first stop was the TODAY Show, where I watched him marvel at the crowd on the plaza and the glitz and glamor of Rockefeller Center. Coming from a war-torn country, it was unfathomable to him to see people feel safe enough to hang out and watch the taping of a daily news show in midtown Manhattan.
It just so happened that his visit coincided with a TODAY Show appearance by my favorite author and speaker, Jen Hatmaker. Truthfully, her presence on the show was why I tagged along on the excursion. I really, really, wanted an opportunity to meet her. My husband, being the savvy PR guy that he is, made friends all over the city during his time in the Manhattan office and had a few friends who worked for the Today Show who helped increase the odds of my meeting her. Lucky me.
While we watched the show from the plaza, one of my husband’s friends, “Uncle Phil,” was kind enough to seek out my blogging BFF. He told me to stand outside the the green room where the next segment’s guests were waiting to go on the parenting segment. Through the window I could see him walk stealthily behind each of the presenters, and then not so stealthily point to them while waiting for my head to nod yes or no, signaling which one was Jen. It took him a few tries, but as soon as I nodded up-and-down, he promptly tapped her on the shoulder, said something to her, and pointed out the window to me. Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that I almost melted into the plaza in both excitement and embarrassment. Then, without hesitation, she walked over to the window and we had a pantomimed conversation. To onlookers, I’m sure it was comical – her waving and me melting. But that was it. I “met” her and I was thrilled. I could hop the train back to Connecticut a happy woman.
But, the adventure wasn’t over. During their whispered conversation in the green room, our friend also asked Jen and her team if they would meet us in person after they finished their segment on the show – they agreed.
After they finished, the three of us – my husband, his interpreter, and I – were ushered into the lobby adjacent to the TODAY Show studio and waited for Jen, her husband Brandon, and her team to meet us. Sweating profusely as my inner fangirl did back flips, I shifted nervously from foot-to-foot and attempted small talk with my husband’s interpreter. It was just then that Team Hatmaker exited studio area and entered the lobby. Before I had time to sweat another drop, Jen, Brandon, and her sister introduced themselves, and began asking us questions about who we were and how we ended up on the plaza that day. I awkwardly stumbled through how I followed her work, and how excited I was to meet her in person.
We spent a good amount of time talking and laughing, and I was not disappointed as you sometimes hear about in these situations. She, and the rest of the crew with her, were as gracious and kind in person as I had imagined her to be. But the biggest impact of the twenty-ish minutes we spent together was not the parting gift of her not-yet-released book (#the4500), but what I observed as our two groups conversed.
Our group was an awkward bunch- two very white thirty-somethings and one very Afghan twenty-something. Yet, our time in conversation with the Hatmaker crew was not awkward. When they asked a question, they actually wanted to know the answer. I was particularly stuck by an exchange between the Hatmakers and my husband’s interpreter. As they listened to him they actually leaned in – physically. They moved closer to hear what he was saying, listening to his experience as a son of a farmer turned interpreter turned English speaker, interpreter, and young man arriving in the United States to find his place in a new country and culture. They inched closer to catch every word.
I don’t know that I’ve seen strangers treat other strangers with such dignity. Often, it seems, it’s easier to get caught up in the differences in looks, culture, religion, language, political perspective. But they didn’t do that. That day taught me the art of the lean in. To get close. To listen. To learn. To respond in love. To truly lean in.