by Kenneth Rudich
It’s hard to have qualms about the intent to address an important social issue, unless the attempt that follows the intent has a flaw.
Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is the driving force behind the recently unveiled “Ban Bossy” campaign, which aims to help little girls strive to become leaders. According to her, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”
What Sandberg really wants, it seems, is for girls to feel encouraged to pursue leadership roles, and to not retreat from showing the assertiveness that’s often required. There’s no fault with this idea – none whatsoever. It’s good, just, right.
The problem rests with telling people – boys, girls, men, and women alike – that bossiness can have a good connotation if only you regard it as a sign of assertiveness; that bossy and leadership are interchangeable; and that being called bossy should be shrugged off as a compliment, rather than taken as a reason to step back and honestly evaluate what may have provoked it and if it was deserved (also known as developing self-awareness and people skills).
Whatever message the “Ban Bossy” catch-phrase seeks to implant, this is one of the ways in which it can be construed – or perhaps, misconstrued.
There are, after all, plenty of bossy people in boss positions who display a distinct lack of leadership skills. They tend toward using the iron fist of coercion to prod people on, rather than the artful hand of leadership to draw them in.
In her blog post “Why I Can’t Lean In to Ban Bossy,” Jessica Gardner aptly explains the stark contrast between bossy and leadership.
Rather than reiterate what she’s already capably done, I’d like to look at the practical side of what can happen when bossy is mistakenly regarded as synonymous with leadership. As a preface to this, it would be a good time to pause and read Jessica’s post for background purposes.
Two Tales of Assertiveness
Assertiveness all by itself – that is, when untamed by a healthy combination of intellect and emotional intelligence – forms a shaky foundation. It can set the stage for bad things to happen when a person is in the moment of acting “assertive.” Let’s look at each end of the behavioral spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum is the story of a woman named Kelly Blazek, who runs a popular online job bank for marketing professionals in Cleveland. She apparently considers herself a senior marketing specialist with a carefully curated database of professional connections on LinkedIn. She was, in fact, named the city’s “Communicator of the Year” for 2013.
Upon receiving a polite e-mail and LinkedIn request from 26 year old Diana Mekota, who was planning to move to Cleveland, Blazek responded with an e-mail of her own that, for reasons unknown, lashed out at the young woman, accusing her, among other things, of being a millennial with an entitlement issue for wanting access to Blazek’s vaulted database.
After receiving it, the young woman shared the nasty e-mail on social media and with the mainstream media. To no one’s surprise, it went viral and careers got derailed.
At the other end of the spectrum is the story of 13 year old McKenna Pope who spearheaded a campaign to convince Easy-Bake Oven toy maker Hasbro to produce an oven that was suitable for boys.
It began when her four year old brother wanted one for Christmas, but her quest to find one that didn’t have a feminine orientation – in both the product itself and the product packaging – deterred her from buying one for him.
The recognition of this built-in bias spurred the New Jersey teen to petition the toy maker to offer gender-neutral colors that would appeal to both boys and girls, and to perhaps add pictures of boys on the packaging, including the pink and purple ones.
After putting the petition online, she got more than 40,000 signatures and also won the support of celebrity chefs.
Shortly thereafter, Hasbro announced plans to unveil a black and silver version of the toy in February of 2013.
All three operatives in these two tales clearly showed assertiveness. But in your estimation, how did each of them do when it came showing leadership skills?
Tweak Ban Bossy?
I would like to suggest that the catch-phrase “Ban Bossy” is misaligned with the ultimate objective the campaign aspires to serve – not by a lot mind you, but just enough so that it fails to favor one of these two outcomes over the other.
So here’s where this campaign gets interesting. While it’s still in its infancy, and in the face of already considerable feedback not far removed from the sentiment described herein, will the people behind “Ban Bossy” tweak it…or not?
What do you think should be done?