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Sheryl Sandberg Is Not in Control

The Facebook COO on navigating a new book, a new life, and a falling-out with her followers.

Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook headquarters earlier this spring.

 

Sheryl Sandberg is sitting close to me, almost catlike, one skinny-jeaned leg curled underneath her, the other bent at the knee and clasped in her arm, her torso leaning (of course) in. We are in Sandberg’s personal conference room outside her Facebook cubicle, and she has just picked up a lip balm from the table and reapplied. Besides her intimate posture and the rich softness of her leather jacket, three things jump out at me. Sandberg is more petite than I’d expected. She says “like” a lot. And for someone who’s just written a book about the loss of her life partner, and the acts of renewal that came afterward, she still seems mighty vulnerable.

“I’m nervous,” she tells me, pulling her knees tighter into her chest. “I’m even nervous to talk to you about it.” At times while discussing her latest self-help book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, tiny tears spring to the corners of her eyes, and her hands gesticulate for emphasis. “There is a difference between writing and speaking,” she says. “You know the personal parts of the book were written really as a journal—they weren’t meant to be a book.” But only a public airing, she felt, could allow her to process the greatest tragedy of her life. “I found my husband on a gym floor, and I learned later that he had died already,” she says, painfully. “I had never seen anyone dead before.”

Sandberg’s team has granted me 30 minutes for this conversation, with the caveat that nothing can appear in print before the April 24 publication of Time, which put her on its cover for the second time (the first, with the cover line “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful,” arrived in 2013). Sandberg’s media tour is pegged to the release of her book, which is specifically about losing her husband of 11 years, Dave Goldberg, in May 2015, and broadly, for the rest of us, about the power of resilience. Her handlers have asked that our conversation stick to the book’s messages, not her future political aspirations or her recent summons by Donald Trump or the pick-your-controversial-Facebook-policy-du-jour. Like everything Sandberg touches, the rollout is tightly controlled.

And yet, in person, Sandberg has moments when she is not. She admits readily to her fear of being alone. She talks about being wounded by the venom that’s been spewed about her decision to start dating again (one online troll called her a “garbage whore” after she was romantically linked to video-game mogul Bobby Kotick). She readily passes along the advice given to her by her rabbi friend a couple of weeks after Goldberg passed away suddenly in a hotel gym in Punta Mita, from a heart arrhythmia. “It was, ‘Expect it to suck,’” she recounts. “Like, expect it. Like, don’t fight it.”

Both of her hands are going at full tilt as she describes the hotel gym horror and what immediately preceded it, events that provide the opening scenes of Option B. In the book, she replays her final groggy words to her husband from the pool lounge pillow where she is splayed beside him. She and Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, had been in Mexico on an adult getaway to celebrate their friend’s 50th birthday. “I’m falling asleep“ she whispers to him. When she wakes more than an hour later, he’s off at the gym as planned. She returns to their room, showers, phones her kids, and then joins some friends on the beach. When Dave doesn’t show, she begins to worry aloud to her friends. Feeling a wave of panic, Sandberg and a friend run to the gym, finding Dave’s leaden body on the floor, his face slightly blue, blood trickling from his head. They take turns administering CPR until a doctor arrives to take over. Sandberg then takes a front seat ride in a too-slow ambulance, barred by paramedics from being beside her husband, asking continually, hysterically, Is he still alive?

Sandberg first opened up to the public about this nightmare on her Facebook page in June 2015, breaking her silence one month into her new reality. The act of posting, and then the overwhelming response those posts provoked (400,000 shares and counting), “just broke the dam open,” she says. Option B began right there, with the recognition (natural to the COO of the world’s biggest social network) that the only meaning to be gleaned from such a loss would have to come from guiding others through their grief. “When you go through something this hard...helping other people with what we’ve been through, it doesn’t just give our lives meaning, it gives our suffering meaning,” she tells me. In chronicling her husband’s death, she seeks not just solace, but some sense of permanence. “I feel a really big responsibility to keep Dave’s memory alive,” she says. Then, with an upward lilt, sounding hopeful, “Did you know him?”


As our 30 minutes
race by, Sandberg keeps mostly to the script, running me through the research that backs many of her book’s anecdotes, in particular the peer-reviewed studies that undergird Option B’s three thematic Ps: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Cowritten with her friend Adam Grant, a University of Pennsylvania management and psychology professor, the book is crammed with examples of people persevering through adversity—soldiers handling PTSD, workers combatting survivor’s guilt following layoffs, kids flourishing by adopting “growth mindsets.” But in addition to the clinical examples, there are also searing scenes from Goldberg’s death and its aftermath. She recounts her seven- and ten-year-old kids’ “primal screams” upon hearing the news, Sandberg’s mother holding her as she sobbed herself to sleep that first month, and Dave’s visage appearing “like augmented reality” in meetings. The book’s title encapsulates an idea worth spreading: Option A (Dave) was now out, so Sandberg needed to “kick the shit out of Option B,” as a friend famously directed her.

Sandberg is, in this interview as in countless other times in which she presents herself for public consumption, thoroughly impressive. She’s candid yet controlled, interweaving the Valleyspeak her cohort finds so persuasive with a personal touch that is, indeed, touching. But nonetheless, I can’t deny a heaviness hanging ever thicker between us. My sense of bewilderment, maybe betrayal, at Sandberg not fully living up to the image that she created for herself since launching her Lean In movement in with a TED Talk in 2010. Sheryl, I like you, I want to say. I admire your candor. And I feel your pain. But with all that ails the world right now, this is your prescription?

The truth: Mourning or not, Sandberg has not been the feminist leader I wanted over the tumultuous months since Donald Trump was elected. I fall among a legion of women who are currently disappointed that the queen of leaning in has so clearly leaned away from confronting the anti-women policies of the Trump presidency. First, there was Sandberg’s December hustle to Trump Tower to sit beside the president-elect. Then, during the women’s marches after the inauguration, Sandberg was noticeably MIA, with not even one measly Facebook post in solidarity. All of this sits atop a growing recognition of Facebook’s culpability in delivering us Trump in the first place. Even though I’ve been instructed not to talk about these things with her, I can’t not.

And so I push her a little. “I feel there has been a frustration,” I say. “Women really want you to stand up right now, and be visible.” She pushes back: “I mean, I have been very visible.” She lists specific policies she has attacked—Trump’s Muslim ban and the administration’s cutting funding to international organizations that provide family planning and contraception. She touts her support for generous paid family leave, time off for bereavement, and caring for a sick parent, child, or partner. “Read my posting on paid leave,” she says. “I’m like, 12 weeks. Reimbursed. Like, men and women. Child care. It’s pretty detailed policy stuff.”

To be fair, more recently she has been commenting or taking policy stances in posts against race- and faith-based hatred. But still, that’s not the perception out there, I say, pressing further. I tell her about the friends I’ve spoken to about her—the tech consultant who calls Sandberg “foremost a capitalist working at Facebook,” the angel investor who rails that “she put herself in the position to grab hold of those reins, to be the leader—and now she’s not a fucking leader,” and of course PandoDaily founder Sarah Lacy, who has vocally faulted Sandberg for being “cowardly.”

Hearing these complaints, Sandberg isn’t dismissive of them, but she doesn’t fully accept the narrative, either. “I mean, I am pretty loud, if you look at what I’ve done—” She stops herself. “I’ve tried to do a lot…. I want to do my part.” I ask why she skipped the march, a time to show resilience if there ever was one. “Well, I wish I’d marched, and I said that,” she says. “It was really just a personal—it was a personal conflict.”

But of course she knows this isn’t sufficient. Sandberg’s hard Lean Out from the resistance, coupled with the timing of her book (which, admittedly, was in the works long before Trump was elected), makes it hard not to see her political reticence as just another form of hyper-controlled self-marketing. And yet, buried inside the gut-wrenching, heartstrings-tugging memoir filled with the latest clinical research on behavioral science, is a de facto policy platform aligned with typical progressive causes like spreading LGBTQ rights, ending mass incarceration, and promoting early preschool education and quality healthcare. So color me confused. 

Publicly, Sandberg’s emphatic that she has no future designs on 1600 Pennsylvania. Lacy, for one, believes her, surmising that Sandberg’s political caution is not unique in tech-titan circles and that it bespeaks nothing more than a core fiduciary responsibility. “I think Mark Zuckerberg has failed that test when it comes to immigration. I think Elon Musk has failed when it comes to climate change,” Lacy says. And yet, Sandberg more than any of these men, has the platform and the gumption to push a wider message. If Sheryl doesn’t stand up, then who will? 

Alas, though, Sandberg is not, at this juncture, looking to rile anybody up. Rather, she’s hoping to provide some succor for those who are ailing. While she is not grabbing the activist mantle as forcefully as I believe she should, she is still bringing people together. “No one can do this alone. I can’t get through Dave’s death alone. None of us do anything alone,” she says. I want to know if there’s a silver lining in her fate-disrupted life, a shift in her societal view after the ascent of Trump. “Do you feel a sense of hopefulness?” I ask.  And, of course, she does. “I have to dig deep for the hope right now, but I have it,” she answers. “I mean, I believe in hope. I wrote about hope in the book. You have to have hope.” 

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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