Ban Bossy? Not So Fast.

by Denise

My problem with the “ban bossy” campaign is that bossiness is, one, a real trait, and two, an undesirable one. To be bossy is to overstep your rightful authority and impose your will upon others. Bossy people think that they know best and that it is acceptable to pressure others into complying with their wishes or deferring to their judgments. Bossy people do not realize they are bossy because they are convinced that they have authority in an area when in reality they do not.

Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In told a story of how she used to organize the activities of her classmates on the playground. She used this as an example of leadership skills. Clearly she had a well developed personality and the potential to become a good leader. But I’m sure at least some of her classmates found her overbearing. She may have had great ideas about what games they could play, but it wasn’t her place to decide for her peers how they should be using their free time.

Further, bossy crosses gender boundaries. Men and boys can most definitely be bossy. I used to tell my younger brother all the time to stop being bossy. I remember when he was five years old, my sister came downstairs, dressed and ready to go out. She wore a top that exposed one of her shoulders. My brother immediately began scolding her for the shirt she was wearing, climbed onto one of the kitchen chairs so he could be eye level with her, and told her that she needed to go upstairs and “put some clothes on” and she was not going to leave the house wearing that. I can only guess he was mimicking something he had seen on TV. It was a funny situation and I was charmed by his precocity, but at the same time he deserved the reprimand he received from our mother because it certainly was not his place to tell my sister what she could or could not wear.

Bossiness is not leadership. Bossiness depends upon pressure, coercion, and directives which disregard the will of the person receiving them. Leadership by contrast requires consent to be led, people buying into your vision, and individuals accepting your authority over them. Leaders arise informally when people grant those things without being asked. Leaders function in organizations when they act within their sphere of authority among people who have agreed to submit to the organizational structure in place. Bossy people undermine their own leadership potential in informal settings by being unable to respect the will and independence of others and in formal settings by being unable to recognize the appropriate sphere of their authority.

Essentially, true leaders do not have to be bossy because their authority has been granted, acknowledged, and accepted. I don’t know about banning bossy, but we should definitely ban bossiness.