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Bravery vs. Ambition: Leaning Out, Not In by Rebekah Lyons

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Lucky for us, Woolf’s words no longer ring true. Women are now showing up everywhere—from the marketplace to the church to the culture at large. They are finding their voice, evolving into a gender that resembles something more like a lion, and perhaps a bit less like a lamb.

This new kind of woman is purposeful. She’s hopeful. Discovering why she’s been put on this earth, she’s quick to know her weaknesses but allows them to unearth her abilities. She’s using her gifts to solve problems and to tackle burdens she carries both inside her home and out.

One of the leading voices among this new kind of woman is Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, landed in bookstores a few weeks ago. I scooped up a copy release day because I wanted to know what a powerhouse like Sandberg, who has shattered every glass ceiling in her way, had to say about women in leadership.

The night I began reading, I found myself feverishly earmarking and underlining. My daughter cuddled next to me on the couch, her nose buried in Farmer Boy until around 10:00 pm. It was a warm and serendipitous moment. Monkey see, monkey do.

Sandberg hooked me with her statement, “We [women] hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Agreed.

As I sank deeper into our couch cushions, the moments followed with more outcries of “Yes!” as I resonated with her insights: “Women who participate in multiple roles actually have lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of mental well-being.” Dead on. The past three years of my life confirmed the truth of that. If only I’d understood this sentiment when my panic attacks began three years ago when we moved to New York City from a suburb in the south.

Moving along to Chapters 6, 7 and 8, I uttered a soft, “Amen!” to Sandberg’s words, “[Just] as women must be more empowered to work, men must be more empowered at home.” I recalled my early years of marriage when I would emasculate Gabe with instructions on how precisely “whites” must be laundered and bleached, how apples should be cut, even how rounded a coffee scoop should look. All signs I knew best.

But something kept gnawing at me as I read. Sandberg spoke of the leadership ambition gap in women. Each time I read the word, I instinctively cringed. “Ambitious” is not a current compliment for women in our culture. And, yes, we should work to change that—maybe. There are good things about being ambitious, about dreaming big, about working hard and achieving goals.

But wait? Didn’t Jesus imply that life is found, not at the top of the ladder, but on the bottom rung? Matthew’s kingdom cry rang in my ears, “If you lose your life for (me), you’ll find it.” And John’s idea that “apart from (God) we are nothing”? Scripture seems to regularly point us toward surrender instead of ambition. Further, it implies that strength is never perfected in us until we are weak. This sounds more like bravery. The words are close, but worlds apart.

Ambitious people desire and are determined to achieve success.

Brave people are prepared to face and endure danger and pain.

Ambition has a tendency to bend a good thing—bravery—into a selfish thing. And the world doesn’t need more selfish women. It needs more women who are empowered to use their talents to renew their workplaces, as well as their families, neighborhoods and communities. If we lean in to a corporate culture that insists we climb our way to the top, we will miss a greater call to bravery: to transforming our surroundings, instead of conforming to them.

I think of a dear friend who welcomed infants and toddlers into her home nine times in the past two years to live among her four children when they needed interim foster care, eventually reuniting them back with their birth mothers.

Or another friend and mother who has worked tirelessly as an anti-slavery advocate with International Justice Mission for nine years, an organization that rescues sex slaves from brothels around the world.

And yet another, who confessed to closest friends within her church community that she cheated on her husband and they were fighting hard for redemption and restoration. For each other and their children.

Women like these may not necessarily be labeled ambitious, but they are incredibly brave.

Over the past two years, I’ve awakened to my own gifts amidst a season more painful than any other in my 38 years. I’ve never felt more emboldened and desperate. Most mornings begin with earnest pleas for his grace to sustain the assignments he’s put in front of me, in our family and beyond. I’m learning that meaning comes when we are broken. When our burdens and struggles surface and we are transformed.

Like many, I share Sandberg’s desire to see women gain influence in our culture. I long to see them lead in a new and powerful way. But my hope is their leadership will look different than what the world expects. That women will chart new territories of sacrifice and faithfulness to the burdens God has put in their hearts.

As fewer women resign themselves to the anonymity of which Woolfe spoke so long ago, my heart cries to each of them, “Lean Out, Not In.” Let’s give ourselves to others with a kingdom mindset; remembering our gifts are not just for our ambition. They’ve been deployed in us to bravely steward on behalf of others.