Sheryl Sandberg On Leadership: “It Is Better To Inspire Than Direct”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers the comment address at Tsinghua University's School of Economics & Management

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers the comment address at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics & Management

Two months after the death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg traveled to China to deliver the commencement address to graduates of Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and 1995 Harvard Business School MBA, borrowed the slogans from four posters on the walls of Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley to provide guidance and advice.

Fortune favors the bold

Feedback is a gift.

Nothing is someone else’s problem.

Lean In.

Sandberg said the most important leadership principle she has learned is that it is better to inspire than direct. “Yes, people will do what their bosses say in most organizations, but great leaders don’t just want compliance,” she said in her address. “They want to elicit genuine enthusiasm, complete trust and real dedication. They just don’t win the minds of their teams. They win their hearts. If the people who work for you one day believe in you and believe in your mission, they will not just do their daily tasks well but they will do it with true passion.”


Her message immediately segued into a tribute to her late husband, Dave Goldberg, who died while the couple was on vacation in early May. “No one,” she said, “won more hearts than my beloved husband Dave, who passed away suddenly two months ago. Dave was a really inspiring leader. He was kind and generous and thoughtful. He raised the performance of everyone around him. He did it as the CEO of SurveyMonkey, a great company he helped build. And he did it for me and our children.

“Harvard Business School Professor Francis Frei has said that leadership is making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts until your absence. Like Dave, you can do this not just for yourself but for other people.”

Excerpts from her speech follow:

“At Facebook, we have posters on the wall, slogans and sayings that help us to try to think big and broad as much as we can, every single day. I think there are important leadership lessons in these posters so today I am going to talk about four of them because I think they will have meaning or you.


“The first, fortune favors the bold. Facebook exists because Mark believed that the world would be a better place if technology would connect us as individuals. He believed so much he dropped out of Harvard to pursue that mission. What he did wasn’t lucky. It was bold. It is unusual to find your passion as early as Mark. It took me far longer. When I was sitting like you in a graduation row, I never could have considered a job at Facebook because there was no Internet and Mark was 11 years old.

“When I was sitting where you were, I thought I would only ever work in the government or a non-profit because I thought those organizations made the world a better place and companies just chased a profit. But then when I was working at the U.S. Treasury Department, I saw from afar how technology companies were changing the world and I changed my mind. When my government job ended, I decided to move to Silicon Valley. In retrospect, that seems very shrewd. But in 2001, it was questionable at best. The tech bubble had burst. All the big companies were laying people off and the small companies were going out of business.

“I gave myself four months to find a job. It took almost a year. The first CEO I got to interview with said to me, ‘I took this interview as a favor for a friend. But I would never hire you because people from the government can’t work in technology.’ Eventually, I persuaded someone to hire me. And 14 years later I still love working in tech. It was not my original plan but I got myself there eventually.

“So if you find yourself on one path but you long for something else, keep trying. And if that path isn’t right, try again. Keep trying and trying until you find something that stirs your passion, a job that matters to you and others. It is a luxury to combine passion and contribution, and it is also the clearest path to happiness.

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