Can banning one school-yard word really change the world? Sheryl Sandberg says yes.Sandberg -- the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book "Lean In" -- is spearheading the launch of a campaign today to ban the word "bossy," arguing the negative put-down stops girls from pursuing leadership roles."We know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead," Sandberg said, "and if you ask girls why they don't want to lead, whether it's the school project all the way on to running for office, they don't want to be called bossy, and they don't want to be disliked."Sandberg said these attitudes begin early and continue into adulthood."We call girls bossy on the playground," Sandberg said. "We call them too aggressive or other B-words in the workplace. They're bossy as little girls, and then they're aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women."Sandberg's organization Lean In is joining forces with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez to launch a public service campaign called "Ban Bossy." The banbossy.com website gives tips for parents, kids, teachers and others about how to encourage young female leaders.
Pardon me whilst I wring out my lace handkerchief.
I'm sorry, but any girl who can be kept from a leadership role because she fears being called "bossy" might--just might--not be the sort of girl who will grow up to be the sort of woman who can handle leadership. The old trope that what is condemned as "bossy" in a girl is admired as leadership in a man might have been true in 1955 or so, but those of us who are bossy ourselves know that being bossy isn't about leadership: it's about ordering people around and telling them what to do and pretending that that is leadership. Which it isn't. Not by a long shot.
In other words, "bossy" is about attitude, not about aptitude. A bossy person knows that she can make her little brothers do more than their fair share of the chores (by the way, younger brothers of mine--sorry about that!) or pressure them into taking all the blame for things she's at least partly responsible for. If her bossiness extends to the classroom (mine didn't, because I didn't have that kind of social clout in school) she's the girl who tells everyone else on the class project what to do and hounds them to do it while simultaneously choosing a relatively easy task for herself and both magnifying its importance and minimizing its ease. Even when the bossy person isn't getting away with that sort of thing, chances are that she's a natural micro-manager, the kind of person who wants everyone to do everything exactly the way she insists that it has to be done and who never listens to negative criticism or input from others as to whether there might not, after all, be perfectly reasonable alternatives to doing things her way.
If--and it's a big if--the bossy person can learn to cool it with the attitude, take others' advice, step back and let other people contribute, quit micromanaging, and learn to delegate and to trust that those to whom she has delegated will, indeed, be able to complete their tasks, she might make a fine leader someday (or maybe she'll just be a relaxed and sane stay-at-home homeschooling mom instead of a too-tightly wound one).
Those of us who were born bossy have the same choice about that bossiness that everyone has about those kinds of characteristics: we can argue that the word itself is somehow harmful and demeaning to women (though there can be bossy men, too!) or we can agree that "bossy" isn't leadership, and that leadership isn't being "bossy," either--that a true leader is far less likely to exhibit the characteristics of a bossy person and that a bossy person may be in a leadership role, but that doesn't make his or her bossiness any easier to deal with. The second thing seems to me to be a good place to get a conversation about leadership going, a conversation that might unpack some of the true qualities of leadership which in addition to delegating and listening and permitting open contribution also includes such things as good, strong decision-making and the willingness to take full responsibility for those decisions even when--especially when--things don't go well. The first idea--the idea that says, "Okay, everybody, the word 'bossy' is now banned from use because we've decided it's harmful to girls!" seems just a little...a little...oh, what's the word?