Yesterday, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and the Girl Scouts of America announced their joint war on the word “bossy” in an impressive social media campaign, media blitz and content program.
The idea is inspired by a line from Sandberg’s book, Lean In: “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”
Backing her are many familiar and accomplished women, including Michelle Obama, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Garner, Condoleeza Rice and Beyonce. Some of them appear in this PSA here:
It’s an impressive lineup, which makes you think that “bossy” might as well relinquish its spot in the dictionary right now: Go home, bossy. You’re finished.
But here’s the thing: “bossy” and “leader” aren’t the same thing, by any stretch. We can’t swap one for the other—because they aren’t synonymous.
Let’s look at the data on bossy vs. leadership—or, in this case, at the definitions:
Bossy (adjective): Fond of giving people orders; domineering.
Synonyms: domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, high-handed, authoritation, dictatorial, controlling
Lead·er·ship (noun): The action of leading a group of people or an organization. Synonyms: guidance, direction, control, management, supervision, superintendence
The campaign is really more about banning attitudes than banning the word, of course. In some people’s minds, “woman leader” (“strong woman”) often equals “bossy.” (Or worse.)
I understand that. But still there’s something about the #BanBossy campaign that doesn’t quite square. (And for the record: I’m still thinking about this… but this post is meant to air some of it.)
Does banning a word ‘change the data’?
Banning a word like bossy makes good headlines. But what’s missing from the #BanBossy conversation is a more nuanced, rational discussion about the nature of leadership itself. For one, not all strong woman leaders are bossy, and not all bossy women (or men!) are leaders.
In other words, I’m not sure it’s the right next step for a visible movement that’s looking to make a difference in how the world sees female leaders, and how girls and women see themselves. And I think there’s a bit of a missed opportunity to weigh in on what makes a leader to begin with.
I saw Sheryl speak in Boston a year ago. (I wrote about it here.) She was funny, smart and self-deprecating—all values I admire in someone. And I liked her book for a few reasons. But mostly I loved the signal it sent to my own teenage daughter, her friends, my goddaughter, my younger colleagues and other young women in my life (and the spirited discussion that ensued with some of them): You are capable. You are leaders. Let’s change the data that shows that, 30 years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the US, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions.
It’s hard not to love the movement that Sheryl (and now the Girl Scouts) have ignited.
I almost wrote, “As a woman… it’s hard not to love…”
But you know what? It’s hard for any modern, thinking person not to get behind the broader themes of Sheryl’s mission. Being against efforts to balance inequities, nurture talent, and boost access and self-esteem is a little like being against literacy: There are some points that are just too dumb to argue.
Last night, I shared #BanBossy with my daughter Caroline, and her reaction was interesting: “But bossy girls aren’t leaders.”
That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close to what she said. People she knows in school who are “bossy” tend not to be the kind of person who inspires others to be better versions of themselves. Which, in my book, is really the essence of a leader, based on something I read by the writer David Foster Wallace years ago:
“Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy.
“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.
“In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
It’s not lost on me now that David Foster Wallace refers to a dude leader. (Side note: A better word to ban might be the tendency to use “he” in default reference to any leadership role.) But I also don’t know that word-banning really changes the data much, either.
My daughter Caroline knows a little bit about leadership, too, because in her young life she’s already internalized something she studied last summer: “Controversy with civility.” Or, the idea that leadership comes less in the form of giving people orders than it does in inspiring discourse and mutual understanding. In other words, it doesn’t come from being bossy.
Maybe the #BanBossy campaign will evolve into that larger discussion. I hope so.
To be fair, there are some wonderful resources on the BanBossy.com site for girls, parents, managers, teachers and more about ways to encourage gender equity in the classroom, or modeling behavior, or media/literary-watching for gender bias. There are also some wonderful curated stories highlighting girls who are challenging themselves and challenging assumptions—like a story about a group of skater girls in Afghanistan.
In other words, there’s an attempt to broaden the conversation, but I wish there was more there on developing true leadership, instead of just attacking an adjective.
“A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
In other words, there’s an ocean of difference between being an opinionated asshole and an opinionated consensus-builder.
I’d love to see more of the latter. And that goes for both men and women.