Sheryl Sandberg’s Trial by Fire

Until now Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook, author of the blockbuster hit Leaning In, and activist– had it all. At least she seemed to. She seemed to have led a life of unvarnished good fortune: great success from an early age; material wealth beyond imagining; good health and good looks; and recognition, even adulation, and love. In fact, as she became in recent years not only a leader in American business but a leader in America more generally – especially of women who were professionally ambitious and similarly intent on having a family including children – Sandberg became something of a household name, familiar to anyone with an interest in issues relating to women and leadership.

Sandberg though had a flaw. She was too perfect. Everything about her was perfect – her professional life and her personal life. If there was even a single fly in her ointment it was not apparent. And so her activism, especially on behalf of women in the workplace, was somewhat suspect. She was or so she seemed an elitist – how could she possibly know anything about the travails of mere mortals? How could she – flanked on the one side by her immediate superior, the iconic Mark Zuckerberg; and on the other by her model husband and the model father of their two young children, Dave Goldberg – possibly relate to the rest of us, beset as we all were, we women particularly, by typical travails of everyday life?

All this has now changed. With Goldberg’s sudden death last week at age 47, Sandberg’s apparently perfect life has been shattered. At least for now, and for years to come, her purpose in life will be to stitch a new life – for herself, and for her son and daughter.

It is impossible to predict the ultimate impact of this tragedy on Sheryl Sandberg. But here is what we do know. Great heroes, great leaders in life and legend, endure trial by fire. As Joseph Campbell wrote in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This then is not to say that Sheryl Sandberg will eventually emerge triumphant from her descent into Hades, into the underworld, or other world. Instead it is to point out that heroes, heroines, great leaders, are frequently familiar with having had to achieve “a decisive victory” over “fabulous forces.”



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