As flashy and fun as the terms selfie and binge-watch are, it’s important to keep in mind another, more business-casual buzzword of the 2010s: lean in. This term existed before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg started using lean in to encourage women to embrace challenge and risk in the workplace.
What is the traditional meaning of lean in?
Traditionally lean in has been used in the context of sports to mean “to shift one’s body weight forward or toward someone or something.” In water and snow sports, you can lean into a wave, the wind, a slope, or a turn. You can lean in to a pitch, or throw, or catch as well. But this kind of leaning does not capture Sandberg’s metaphorical extension of lean in.
Ben Zimmer points out perhaps the earliest example of leaning in a business environment from a 1941 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly: “Kent Cooper is leaning into it at Columbia Business.” This more figurative type of leaning echoes earlier extended usages. In his 1906 Poetry and the Individual, Hartley Burr Alexander uses the phrase “leaning into the future.” Similarly Frances C. Sparhawk’s 1892 Onoqua contains the sentence “Her soul flashed back from the dark valley over which she had been leaning into the full sunlight of life,” in a description of a woman daydreaming inside a room.
As Motoko Rich pointed out in her New York Times piece “Making a Word Meme,” the phrase lean in took a life of its own since Sandberg’s much-anticipated book release in March 2013. Rich writes, “the phrase can be almost anything,” and its “fungibility” is a big reason why it has caught on. Katie J.M. Baker of Jezebel compiled a list of headlines in which Sandberg’s sense of lean in has been “co-opt[ed] … for the purposes of (at worst) shaming women and (at most ridiculous) making inane non sequiturs about ladythings.”
Why is the phrase suddenly everywhere?
While Sandberg uses lean back in opposition to lean in in her book, the Internet has offered up other terms to describe the same concepts. One article in Wired talks of “lean-in and opt-out feminists,” while various articles in Forbes use “leaning back,” “leaning out,” and “leaping in” in meditations on Sandberg’s philosophy.
In addition to these verbal spin-offs of lean in that have surfaced, conceptual offshoots have also appeared: “Lean In Circles” have started popping up in companies, and participation is not always exclusive to women. According to the New York Times, “‘Lean In’ has also spoken to men in minority groups who say they have wanted more empowerment in company cultures dominated by whites.”
In 2013, the term lean in exploded not just in reference to gender equality in the workplace, but also far beyond the context Sandberg specifically discusses in her book.