There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s latest initiative to “Ban Bossy”, and in doing so encourage girls to attain positions of authority. According to banbossy.com, “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ “.
Let’s set aside the fact that the people who run this Web site don’t know how to properly use quotation marks. As the father of three daughters, I am all for anything that encourages girls to be more empowered. I also agree that we shouldn’t be using the word bossy to describe girls who are outspoken about their ideas and opinions. However, less effort should be put into banning the word bossy, and more effort should be put into teaching our girls (and boys, for that matter) not to be bossy.
Right now, you might be saying, “Hey, you’re a guy. You spend your days in the back room with all the other guys, smoking cigars and plotting to keep women down. What do you know about the problems girls have in being more assertive?”
A woman I once worked with was both smart and attractive. She had an advanced degree in her field, and had proven her abilities time and again. But she worked in a primarily male dominated field. It was a constant struggle to get these men, most of whom probably had more porn than spreadsheets on their laptops, to see past her good looks to the capable leader she was.
Another woman who managed at a company I worked for was the epitome of bossy. She talked down to people, always knew better, tended to dictate rules like she was Moses atop Mount Sinai. When a coworker found out she was going to be her new supervisor, his response was, “She’s mean”.
I’ve spent most of my career in workplaces that were a majority of women. I’ve coached them and counseled them. I’ve experienced the difference in dynamics between a primarily female workplace and a primarily male workplace. In fact, I would argue that being a man gives me an outsider’s perspective on the issue. And what I’ve come to realize is that what the workplace needs is fewer bosses and more leaders.
Being a leader is not the same as being a boss. It is not the same as being a manager. As Tom Peters said, “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” Or in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The leader leads, the boss drives.”
Bossiness (or to use a term more in line with the Ban Bossy folks, assertiveness) is not a leadership quality. It is a management quality. A leader doesn’t tell everyone what to do, instead, a leader gets everyone moving in the same direction towards a mutually desired result. Martin Luther King put it best when he said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
So why are so many so-called leaders bossy? In one word – insecurity. They are unsure of their abilities. They fear failure. They are afraid of appearing vulnerable. They think that any day now, they’ll be found out as the imposters they believe they are. As a result, they bark orders instead of asking questions. They talk instead of listen. They cover up their mistakes by placing the blame on their subordinates. They see opposing views as a threat to the authority.
Not that there isn’t a place for being assertive. The problem with some leaders is that they spend too much time building consensus. Hearing everyone’s opinion takes time. Often, there is no one right answer, and too much information can bog down the process. It takes a true leader to know when it’s time to make a decision. In some cases, there just isn’t time to get everyone together for a discussion, collect data and develop a 100 page report. If our building was on fire, I wouldn’t call a meeting, pull out flip charts and brain storm ideas to handle the situation. I’d quickly evaluate the situation as best I could and make the decisions necessary to ensure everyone’s safety, and if that meant I had to drag some hysterical employee out by his scruff, so be it.
So there’s nothing wrong with being bossy when the situation calls for bossiness. A good leader knows this. If it isn’t called for, yes it’s negative. But we shouldn’t call it being bossy, we should call it what it is – being bitchy.
The Ban Bossy folks also shouldn’t think this is as just a women’s issue. Men can be just as bossy.
Only we call it being an asshole.