Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has been making headlines for several weeks following the release of her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. As she has been making the rounds of talk shows and events, promoting her book, she has been quoted time and again suggesting that we stop labeling little girls “bossy” and instead describe them as having “executive leadership skills.”
“I wrote this book because I want to ban the word ‘bossy’ from the language. I would like every parent who’s about to call their daughter bossy to say, ‘My daughter’s not bossy, she has executive leadership skills.'” [source]
Like many women, teachers, caregivers, and human beings in society, I agree (passionately) with the heart of her message, which I believe is about the deeper, unspoken messages we tend to give little girls in contrast with those that we give little boys (like: be quiet, be sweet, get along, don’t make waves, make sure people like you). I agree (passionately) with the idea that we not adhere labels, period, whether we intend them to be positive or negative. However, as a woman, a teacher, a caregiver, and a human being in society, I have to be honest, her message does not sit well with me. It niggles at me, and here’s why: I don’t care for bossy people. I don’t care for bossy boys, bossy girls, bossy men, or bossy women. I was discussing this whole issue with my husband after we had watched Sandberg’s interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and my husband said, “We call bossy girls ‘bossy’. We call bossy boys ‘bullies.'”
Don’t we? When I hear “bossy,” I don’t think of leadership. I think of domineering. Controlling. Getting one’s own way, whatever the cost.
The word “bossy” does send a negative message. I’m not sure it needs to be reframed, because I think being bossy is a negative quality. I have worked with many little girls and many little boys who could have been labeled “bossy.” Rather than denying the negative qualities that would have earned them this label, I worked to foster within them the prosocial skills that would lead to greater interpersonal successes down the road.
True leaders are not bossy. That is, they don’t domineer and they don’t control. They have vision and passion and they care about those that they are leading. They guide. They bring out the best in others. They don’t railroad others. What Louis R. Mobley found when he set out to create the IBM Executive School was that, “Unlike supervisors and middle managers, what successful executives shared were not skills and knowledge but values and attitudes. And over time Mobley identified the values and attitudes that great leaders share.” [source]
The unfortunate reality is that many executives are bossy and they are bullies. Many people who achieve great success in business and banking do so at the cost of the prosocial skills their preschool teachers may have tried to instill. Many find that they work so long and so hard at cultivating their competitive drive that they’re unable to turn it off when they leave the office (if they ever do). The always-on charisma that has gotten them so far doesn’t necessarily make them successful at authentic connections. I know that I’m not alone when I say that this is not a world that I understand or could thrive in. The world I work in is the polar opposite.
In the real world that I work in, I am a leader. In fact, I am a pretty good leader on the best of days. Here are the things that have helped to make me successful: honesty, empathy, initiative, clarity, and not being afraid to get my hands dirty (I never ask anyone who follows my leadership to do something that I have not done or would not do). I couldn’t write a book on leadership because my leadership is very small and very quiet. Inside, I don’t think of myself as a leader. Inside, I think of myself as being pretty easily intimidated by the bossy people of the world. Sometimes, however, I find that those feelings are to my benefit. Being humble is not a bad leadership quality.
What I would prefer to see, rather than a world in which we’re fostering little executives on the playground, is a world in which we collectively stand up to the bossies and the bullies and flip the whole paradigm so that nice guys and nice girls who passionately do the right thing and are kind are the ones who finish first.
What does a leadership based on positive values and attitudes look like on the playground, in contrast with plain old bossiness? Positive leaders say, “Let’s find something that we can all play together,” rather than, “You can’t play.” Positive leaders say, “Let’s take turns being the mama,” rather than, “I’m the mom and you’re the dog.” Positive leaders say, “I don’t like when you do that so I’m going to walk away right now,” rather than, “If you do that, we won’t be your friends anymore.”
One of the toddlers in my program right now could be described (and no doubt, down the line, will be described) as a bossy little girl. After listening to Sheryl Sandberg on NPR during her lunch break one day, my assistant told me, “We need to recognize her leadership skills.” During snack that afternoon, when the little girl angrily gestured for me to go back to the kitchen to find and deliver food that was more to her liking, my assistant and I looked at one another and silently agreed: sometimes bossy is just plain bossy and it’s not cool. “She is trying to lead me,” I acknowledged. I bent down to this toddler and said quietly, “Did you want to have something more? You were telling me, ‘More, please!'” I signed the words with a smile. The little girl smiled and signed, “More, please.” That is leadership I can follow.