It was a week before Christmas, and my three kids were reenacting The Nutcracker in our living room when a fight broke out. My seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Olivia, started yelling at her younger brother because he didn’t announce her performance the way she wanted him to. She screamed at him to turn off the lights and start over, and Luca left the room in tears. As I attempted to intervene and bring some peace to the situation, Olivia started bossing her little sister around, scolding Clara as she touched the props Olivia had put out for her own performance. I tried to calm a now crying Clara, and told Olivia that she needed to play nicely with her brother and sister.
“They weren’t doing what I told them to do!” she yelled, obviously frustrated.
“People usually don’t do what you want when you yell at them,” I replied. “If you are calmer and patient, maybe they will want to play with you.”
This situation made me reflect on a comment that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, made in an interview several years ago about girls and leadership. She said:
“I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills’ because I was told that and because every woman I know who’s in a leadership position was told that.”
When I first heard that declaration, there was a part of me that wanted to rally around that mantra, much like the initial positive reaction I have when I see those t-shirts made for young girls that say, “Future CEO” or “Girls Rule the World.” But there is a fundamental problem with these messages. While these phrases are catchy, should we really be engraining in our children that being a leader just takes a cool t-shirt and ruthlessness? That if you want to be a leader or a CEO, all you have to do is declare it and you can be anything you want? This falls short of the reality that not everyone is meant to be a leader. There is much more to leadership than directing people around. Ask any professional in a leadership role, and I guarantee they will say that leadership is much harder than they expected.
We need to stop telling girls that being bossy is leadership.
In fact, these are the exact opposite behaviors that effective, influential leaders possess. Leadership is listening, supporting, collaborating, challenging others to work at a high level, guiding by providing clarity, influencing by creating a vision, and having the courage to be honest and have tough conversations. Leadership is not dictating, controlling, micromanaging, intimidating, or just about getting results. True leadership is people-focused, not task-focused.
I do believe there are still challenges for women in the workplace, and that biases do exist. There certainly are still times when confident and bold women are viewed negatively in the workplace, when a bold and confident man is seen as effective. But I don’t believe that “bossy” is effective—no matter a leader’s gender.
In my work with executives and managers, one of the most problematic issues in the workplace are people in leadership roles who are not effective because they have challenges with people. Most often these managers and executives were promoted for technical proficiency, not for leadership proficiency. And most of them were not provided any leadership training prior to being promoted. Many of them have been in leadership roles for decades, but as the landscape of work changes and employees seek more meaning and engagement in their work, the flaws of task-based management have proven ineffective. Because leadership is about getting results through relationships with people. Bossy is ego-focused, and leadership is others-focused.
So, I want every boy, girl, manager, supervisor, and CEO to know—bossy is not leadership.
As for my daughter, she does exhibit skills that—if channeled properly—may someday develop into good leadership skills. She is confident, bold, and determined. I am doing my best to help develop her skills over time by providing feedback and guidance.
But is her tendency to take control and order her brother and sister around leadership skills? Ask her brother, and he will surely tell you that she is just plain bossy.