boss·y 1 (bôs, bs)
I've read a lot of stories about Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In since it was released in March. I haven't read the book, but from most commentaries I've read, it sounds like solid advice from an incredibly intelligent and successful executive. The one issue I've consistently had with many articles that reference the book is the repetition of Sandberg's pronouncement that "I want every little girl who someone says is bossy to be told instead, you have leadership skills." or "Your daughters aren't bossy, they have executive leadership skills." I realize that like most sound bites, void of context, it can take on a life of its own beyond the original intent, but I find this message - taken in the simplistic form that is being repeated and reprinted - to be inaccurate and missing a real opportunity to truly develop future female leaders.
Here I'd like to offer a different perspective as someone who has spent a lot less time in the executive suite, but likely a lot more time volunteering in my son's classroom over the years, overseeing playdates, observing kids on the playground and generally spending a lot of time with kids during the day as a SAHM.
While Sandberg is far more qualified than I to understand the complexities of what makes for effective leadership in the corporate world, I think it would be fair to say that some of the many important qualities for good leaders to possess include: good listening skills, an ability to create a forum for real discussion and exchange of ideas, recognizing and including the ideas of different individuals, allowing high-achieving workers a fair bit of autonomy and a capacity for empathy. None of those qualities is represented by the typical "bossy" girl (or bossy boy for that matter), and to simply recategorize the bossy girl as a future leader is to miss an opportunity to really help develop a true leader.
While I've read the stories of Sheryl Sandberg training her brother and sister to follow her around, having them do her bidding, I've equally read stories of what wonderful and nurturing parents she has and it's hard to envision that if her bossiness was getting out of control that there weren't some discussions about kindness, empathy, inclusiveness and autonomy - what being a good boss actually entails. I also see the advice to consider bossy girls leaders to be exemplifying a typical parenting mistake of taking an unpleasant quality of a child (in this case bossiness), finding a success story of someone who exhibited the same quality (in this case, Sandberg) and then viewing this shared unpleasant quality as a justfication that the unpleasant quality is actually a good thing..
So, please do not tell these girls that their bossy behavior represents leadership skills. As they shouldn't draw praise, neither do they need to be dismissed and castigated for their behavior. Instead, we can take this moment as a teaching opportunity to discuss what real leadership looks like. We can take a charitable view on the intentions behind their bossiness and tell them that while they clearly have great vision and ideas about how things should be done, there are more effective ways to lead than to simply tell other people what to do. Anyone aspiring to lead a high performing work force is going to require a lot more tricks in their hat than simply telling people what to do. Support for these potential future leaders lies not in praising their controlling behavior, but in actually taking the moment to educate them about what true leadership is and how it's a lot more powerful and effective than the command and control approach. Offer them some suggestions on how to build coalitions, how to bring in and incorporate other people's ideas - the potential learning is enormous. And, to be clear, these are the same things I think we should talk about with our sons if they are being bossy.
So while I of course agree that there are qualities that women/girls are judged for while men receive praise, I also think this isn't a time to laud bossy in any of our children. As a (hopefully) reformed bossy girl, I remember hearing the phrase "there's a difference between being bossy and being boss" and I think that is a timeless lesson we'd all do well to remember and teach our children.