By Audi, Already Pretty Contributor
Sheryl Sandberg believes that little girls who are told they’re bossy will be discouraged from pursuing leadership positions in their careers. I hope that’s true, since bossiness is in fact one of the worst qualities a leader can have. As BJ Gallagher correctly points out in her Huffington Post piece, if the word bossy is applied correctly it describes someone who is domineering, authoritarian, and overbearing. But the Ban Bossy campaign also misses on another, more fundamental level: it makes a sweeping, biased generalization about how young girls are inspired to pursue their dreams and ambitions.
Ban Bossy at its core rests on the assumption that little girls possess an inherent weakness that other children do not. It assumes that a single word can determine the entire course of a girl’s life, and can cause her to stray from a path to which her natural abilities would otherwise lead her. It assumes that little girls are not able to accept truthful criticism and to learn from it, and will abandon their goals at the slightest discouragement. It does not take into account that all people are individuals, and will respond to feedback in different ways. One cannot simply reduce an entire gender to a convenient catch phrase; some girls may indeed be crushed by being called bossy, while others may become stronger and more resilient than ever, but none will benefit from being allowed to engage in ill behavior which will ultimately impair their ability to succeed.
Setbacks and criticism are important drivers in people’s lives, girls included. Strength of character emerges through times of hardship, and would-be leaders in particular must pressure test their abilities in part through overcoming life’s hurdles. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be aware of how our words may affect children’s self-esteem; I’m sure there isn’t a human alive who doesn’t recall some careless comment, probably from a well-meaning adult relative, which had negative echoes for years to come. But shielding little girls from any criticism, especially criticism which is honest and well founded, is not how great leaders are created.
How can we possibly identify the future leaders of the world as children anyway, and why should we even try? Whatever happened to letting kids be kids, instead of forcing them to think about ways in which they might contribute to the work force as adults? Let’s face it, few of us end up with jobs that any child would ever dream about; even someone who thoroughly enjoys their profession would be hard pressed to describe it in a way that would sound even remotely appealing to kids. Telling a child they have leadership potential is preposterous; for one thing it may place undue pressure on the child to live up to that expectation, and for another, an individual’s strengths and abilities often emerge much later in life. If you want to see what a great leader looks like as a child, don’t look for the one who’s ordering other kids around on the playground; look for the unassuming, thoughtful child who shows compassion for others and works hard, because those are the personality traits that inspire others.
So I say yes, let’s ban bossy – behavior, that is. Bossiness is a universally reviled trait, and it must not be mistaken for a sign of natural leadership ability. We must stop assuming that girls are too weak or too sensitive to be able to bear the hard truths of life and not emerge as accomplished, confident adults; the kind of adults who can truly lead.
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Audi is a biotech professional in San Francisco, California. Her blog, Fashion for Nerds, was born out of the frustration of feeling as if science and fashion were doomed to be forever divided. Through her blog she discovered she wasn’t the only one who believes that style has its place even in a scientific workplace; over the years she has met countless other women who struggle to prevent their love of fashion from hindering their credibility as technical leaders. Now in her mid-forties, Audi particularly enjoys testing the boundaries of “age-appropriate” dressing and thinks most style rules were made to be broken. Another important influence on her style is the problem of chronic foot pain, an issue which is exacerbated by San Francisco’s hilly streets and one that she is resolved not to let defeat her obsession with great looking shoes.