Why I Can't Lean In to Ban Bossy

In the middle of the day yesterday, my Twitterfeed blew up with tweets containing the hashtag #banbossy and a Facebook friend of mine posted a cryptic message saying a rich white person wanted to ban the word bossy. Because I was offline most of the day, I had no idea what all this talk about banning the word bossy was about.

And then it hit me.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, had what's become a line heard around the world from her book: "I want every little girl who's told she's bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills." Her Lean In organization and the Girl Scouts have teamed up to ban the use of the word bossy and demonstrate being a leader instead.

When Lean In came out and I saw interviews with Sheryl, I remember feeling icky every time I heard her repeat that line. It bothered me deep down in my gut. It bothered me so much that I've never been able to make it more than halfway through Sheryl's book.

Let me be clear, I am not in favor of shaming or bullying anyone. I believe it's imperative that we build girls (and boys) up every chance we get. And I hate the words bossy and "Little Miss Bossy" and "bossy pants" and many other derivatives of all of it. I hate them partly because once upon a time, they were used to describe me.

But here's what gets me. We cannot simply replace "bossy" with "leader." They are not synonymous.

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, "bossy" means "inclined to domineer, dictatorial." It further defines "bossy" as "fond of ordering people around" and lists "authoritarian, authoritative, autocratic (also autocratical), despotic, dictatorial, domineering, imperious, masterful, overbearing, peremptory, tyrannical (also tyrannic), tyrannous" are synonyms for "bossy."

Do you see what's not part of the definition or listed as a synonym for "bossy"?

Leadership skills.

I don't know about you, but I've worked for quite a few people (both men and women) who in my 20+ year career who are "bossy," but I've worked for very few people who actually have "leadership skills."

What are "leadership skills?" I didn't find a definition of the phrase in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but I did find a great discussion about the topic on Yahoo Answers. My favorite is by a man using the pseudonym Rev. TomCat.

The best leaders are those who can lead and direct without misuse of their power. They must be able to inspire others in a direction or greater good. They must be strong enough to stand firm in decision making and leading others without an egotistical attitude. A great team leader will encourage others to brain storm and contribute to the whole. They also lead by example and intelligently. They are also good listeners. Charisma helps a team leader.

I don't see "bossy" anywhere in this explanation of "leadership skills."

The fact is that some people are bossy. Let's call a spade a spade because it does no one any good to tell someone they've got "leadership skills" when in fact that person is acting like a Class A Jackass, which is my own personal definition of "bossy." By completely eliminating the word "bossy" from our vocabulary and using "leadership skills" as a synonym, we diminish the meaning of "leadership skills" and elevate and praise insufferable behavior.

Going back to my own experiences being called "bossy," it would have done me no good at all if I'd simply been told I was demonstrating leadership skills because I'd have grown up believing that my overbearing ways were acceptable in the workplace and they absolutely are not acceptable and it doesn't matter if you're male or female. We can't just ban bossy and think we've fixed a problem.

I'd rather see us teach kids how to have actual "leadership skills" so that no one grows up to be "bossy." That's a conversation I want to be part of - eliminating the word because no one acts in that manner. Simply banning "bossy" without changing behavior is something I just can't lean in to.

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    Jessica Gardner

    A native of Chicago's Northwest Suburbs and resident of the North Shore, Little Merry Sunshine comes by her name honestly. The story goes that as a child, she was always so happy that she even slept with a smile on her face. Her mom nicknamed her Little Merry Sunshine. It stuck, along with her insatiable desire to focus on the good in the world and to leave it a little better than she found it. She does this by sharing her passions and dreams, what inspires her, and maybe you too, and furthering the discussion about how we can listen to our better angels. You can reach her at LittleMerrySunshineCN[at]WowWay[dot]com.

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