How to Succeed in Business

To begin with, a quiz. Who wrote the following sentences: Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, or Sheryl Sandberg?

(a) When communicating hard truths, less is often more.

(b) It takes self-confidence, courage and a willingness to take the heat when you make the tough calls.

(c) Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.

(d) Get your priorities straight and keep a hot list of what you’re trying to do.

(e) Seeking out diverse experiences is useful preparation for leadership.

(f) People used to ask me, “How could somebody as busy as you go to all those swim meets and recitals?” I just put them down on my calendar as if I were seeing a supplier or a dealer that day.

Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg; drawing by James Ferguson

Before looking at the answers—at the bottom of this page1 —look closely at the prose. These are the words of successful people. More to the point, these are the words of successful people who are trying to sell the secrets of their success to others. In order to do so, they have tailored their language to appeal to the widest possible audience. Hence the blandness of the vocabulary, the interchangeability of the thoughts, the imperative and declarative nature of the sentences.

The similarity of the language may also reflect some parallels between the lives of the writers, all of which have been outstanding. Welch ran General Electric before writing Winning (2005), a best seller that made him into a business guru. Iacocca ran Chrysler before writing Iacocca: An Autobiography (1984), a best seller that made him into a business guru too. Both men then wrote more books, gave lucrative, inspirational speeches, and consciously made themselves into role models for others.

Sandberg hasn’t quite reached CEO heights—she is chief operating officer of Facebook, not the top boss—but then she has some qualities the top boss of that organization doesn’t. Certainly she’s more charismatic, more eloquent, more approachable. Her gender has also contributed to her book’s style and to its reception. There aren’t that many telegenic, superstar female business executives out there, but there are probably a lot of people who would like to become one—especially one who earned $845 million in share options last year. Like its predecessors, Lean In has now become a best seller, and it’s safe to guess that it will make Sandberg into a business guru as well.

Ultimately, Sandberg’s goals are familiar ones too. Lean In, she explains at the end of the book, is not “the end of the conversation, but the beginning”:

I invite you to continue the discussion with me by joining the Lean In Community at Let’s keep talking about these issues and supporting one another…. I also encourage you to visit for practical education and personal experiences that can help you reach your goals. Here you can explore topics critical to your success—from negotiating effectively to understanding your strengths. You also…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.