I am a huge Sheryl Sandberg fan. I’ve watched her TED Talks multiple times. In certain settings, I have quoted Lean In like the Bible. I follow Lean In groups on social media, and I think Sandberg is provoking some of the healthiest discussion taking place about women and work.
So, I was surprised by my viscerally negative reaction to the “Ban Bossy” campaign. I have liked (and probably pinned somewhere) the quote about telling little girls they have leadership characteristics, but the idea of banning the word “bossy” didn’t resonate with me.
Perhaps that’s because I’ve recently realized that I am bossy. There’s no denying it. I make decisions quickly, and I like being a decision-maker. I’m unhappiest when I’m stuck following a prescription that makes no sense to me, and I will do my best to find a way to get unstuck in those situations. My husband jokes that I “don’t take direction well.” He’s mostly right. I’m just bossy, and understanding that about myself has led me to make better choices about my career.
Sure, “bossy” has a negative connotation, and it is arguably disproportionately applied to women (I don’t know about you; I’ve certainly labeled men “bossy”), but every trait is a two-sided coin. Being a leader often means having tendencies toward narcissism. Being entrepreneurial requires a capacity for risk that is reckless. Being influential can also mean being manipulative.
And being a “follower” is no connotative picnic, either. That word is fraught with negativity, yet we must have followers. The ability to observe, understand, and execute is the foundation of a workplace that functions effectively. Followers are successful in almost every industry at many levels, and leaders have to be exceptional followers to find a forum for leadership.
If it’s so important to ban “bossy,” are we not tempted to assign unearned positive status to other words? Lean In makes a compelling argument that the word “mentor” has become loaded with unrealistic expectations. “Flexibility” and “balance” sound like qualities every woman who interviews in a professional setting is seeking, but they can mask some very ugly assumptions about women with small children and some very harsh limitations on growth.
I don’t think banning a word changes the workplace. Sandberg is doing that, instead, by telling her stories. Through story, we come to understand the challenges others face at work. Stories help men understand why their male colleagues would choose to take a full paternity leave. Stories break through barriers around diversity and inclusion issues. I can tell a female candidate that our firm offers a flexible environment, but it’s far more powerful for me to talk to her about part-time attorneys holding meaningful positions of leadership and working on our most significant engagements.
If the “Ban Bossy” campaign is really designed to promote storytelling, that’s great. My fear is that the individuals who need to hear those stories will roll their eyes and walk away. To be a leader in any environment, you must be willing to accept all of the things that make you a leader—good and bad. You have to accept everything in context. You can call me “bossy” every day of the week as long as you’re willing to hear my stories and share your own with me.
Beth is a mom, wife, sister, friend, and HR executive. She's also on a journey to become a yoga teacher. She likes watermelon, reality television, and politics.