mean girls, leadership + the problem with Sandberg’s ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign



So Sheryl Sandberg has launched the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign. The idea is that boys who assert themselves are called ‘leaders’, while girls who do the same are dismissed as ‘bossy’. Quit telling a girl, any girl, that she’s ‘bossy’ and she will no longer be afraid to speak out in class. Thus, or so the reasoning goes, she will become a great world leader.

I can’t really relate to this.

Unlike Sandberg, I was never called bossy as a kid (or as an adult). That’s not my style, even when I am the boss. But I don’t think that anybody who knows me well would say I have a problem speaking out or declaring a passionate point of view.

In the tradition of highly creative kids in small towns all over the world, I didn’t fit in at the best of times. I was sensitive and dreamy and in my head. I read obsessively. I answered questions about Spot and Jane in reading group and then sat at my desk with my Agatha Christie novel and pondered good and evil.

The bullies found me early.

In first grade, it was an oversized, older kid named Phil. In fourth and fifth grades, it was the equally oversized Ross, who introduced some confusion into the matter when he asked me to go with him. That was our version of what was once known as going steady. A boy would send you a note that said WILL YOU GO WITH ME CHECK YES OR NO. Where boys and girls were actually going when they were going with each other was maybe not so glamorous — the Mac’s convenience store on the corner was a popular hangout for the wild ones, born too soon for Starbucks, with their swagger and rebel cries and ability to throw back shots of blue Slushie — but that seemed more or less beside the point.

From sixth grade on, my bullies were girls, the kind who didn’t look or seem like bullies at all. They were bright, socially sophisticated, popular with kids and liked by grown-ups. They made my day-to-day life so miserable I eventually begged my parents to transfer me to another school. The fact that they were sweet, middle-class white girls didn’t change the fact that they were also (at least to me) domineering and mean; if anything, it helped them get away with it.

Female aggression exists. Female bullying exists. ‘Bossy’ could be used as a catchword to describe either, and to ban the word would imply that girls are not capable of both — or that being called ‘bossy’ is always and automatically a bad thing.

One of my sons was a rather bossy kindergartener. I saw the potential for leadership in him, but I also saw that bossy energy as something to be transformed. Being bossy didn’t mean he could see beyond what’s good for him to what’s good for the group.

You are not a leader because you assert yourself, or even because you like to give orders.

You are a leader when people choose to follow you: because you stand for something bigger, because you’re taking them somewhere compelling, because you’re helping them become more of who and what they already are, because they see in you an embodiment of something they’d like to be. Leadership happens in the space between you and someone else. You can be a leader in some areas but not in others: context counts.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink writes about the crucial importance of something he calls perspective-taking. This, he says, is at the heart of moving others today (and what is leadership but the ability to move others to action)?

“Attunement is the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in. Think of it as operating the dial on a radio. It’s the capacity to move up and down the band as circumstances demand, locking in on what’s being transmitted, even if those signals aren’t immediately clear or obvious.”

Perspective-taking is not the same as empathy. When you dominate someone, you impose, or try to impose, yourself on other people; when you’re empathic, you can lose yourself in other people. If empathy is about feeling, perspective-taking is its thinking cousin. You act from the head and not (just) the heart. You can meet the other person where they are (and with healthy boundaries firmly in place). You can “influence and persuade and change someone’s behavior while striking a balance between what others want and what you can provide them.”

Here’s the thing: the more power that you feel you have, the less likely (and perhaps less able) you are to tune into someone else’s point of view. Or as researcher Adam Galinksy and his team of social scientists concluded after a series of experiments:

“…power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives.”

As Pink puts it, power can bump you off the dial and mess up your signals, distorting clear messages and overriding more subtle ones with static.

The ability to read people and tune into what they’re feeling is regarded as a feminine trait. But what if the female ability to empathize is less a matter of biological programming and more the natural consequence of being in a lesser-power position?

Research by Dacher Keltner at the University of California shows that

“those with lower status are keener perspective-takers. When you have fewer resources, Keltner explained in an interview, ‘you’re going to be more attuned to the context around you.’”

So much so, that Pink advises people to

“start your encounters with the assumption that you’re in a position of lower power. That will help you see the other side’s perspective more accurately, which, in turn, will help you move them.”

Again, the point is not to submerge yourself in someone else’s feelings (or be a pushover in any way) but to get an accurate read on reality – so you can work with others to reshape it. This involves a level of listening and observing, an interest in other people, a sense of the bigger picture, and a serious dash of humility – in men as well as women.

Are girls and women unfairly accused of being bossy, for the same behaviors that are accepted in men? Absolutely. Are men and women held to different codes and standards? Yes. But take away the word ‘bossy’ and another word will rise to replace it. Better to examine the conditions that make girls and women so susceptible to this kind of criticism in the first place – while instilling in girls the ability to develop not bossiness (however you define it) but boundaries. This includes the ability to hold their own (even in the face of withering criticism) as well as recognize and respect the boundaries of others.

Instead of drawing focus to how girls don’t fit the traditional male model of leadership, maybe we should look at how the model of leadership is changing, as is the world around it. It might even be time to encourage certain boys to be less bossy, that the way to increase your power is to assume the mental vantage point of the least powerful person in the room. And just as we shouldn’t criticize girls for acting quote-unquote ‘masculine’ (“that bitch”) we shouldn’t criticize boys for acting quote-unquote ‘feminine’ (“that pussy”). It might help to recognize that the most powerful and beloved leaders can tune into the crowd and move it from the inside out, combining traits that are associated with both genders.

I respect Sandberg tremendously, but I have trouble believing that the answer lies in banning any word (although I myself would love to see ‘slut’ banished from human memory). The surface is a great place to start – and provoke – but let’s go deeper. Let’s get girls into a room and pretend we have lesser power than they do. Let’s take their perspective, and get into their heads, and truly hear what they have to say. Are they worried about being perceived as ‘bossy’? Or are they worried about messing up and being laughed at?

Let’s show them – not tell them, not preach at them, not act like we know them better than they do — that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be your messy gloriously imperfect authentic self, and that our bodies are sacred and beautiful even when the tiny jeans don’t fit. Let’s provide them with female mentors and role models. Let’s inspire them with our own achievements and the way we define success (instead of having success defined for us). You have to see it to be it. Let’s make sure they see it.

Mar 16, 2014

20 comments · Add Yours

So glad you posted your thoguhts about bossy.
I’ve had trouble too and posted it on a few SM sites. Not sure why Sheryl is doing this? I know when Oprah banned the n word, some folks were p.o’ed about it nbut I will say, it’s much less heard today.
I like bossy, always have. Bossy is the beginning of leader formation. Bossy has no context, it can be bossy/bad-as many young kids can be-or you can bossy/good & many young kids are. Bossy kids make themselves marks…for bullies, for underdogs, for the very shy and the not shy at all, a bossy member has no fear-or less so than other kids which is part of their appeal. I like bossy and will continue to use it because I don’t see it as pejorative. Context is everything. There have been times when folks have called me bossy and I’ve owned it-those times are usually when a decision has to be made and I’m the one doing it…while they call me bossy. Cool with me.


Love your comment, Marla, thanks for it….(I want to see “I like bossy” on a t-shirt.) Yeah, it’s hard to believe that any born leader is going to wilt at being called ‘bossy’; Sandberg certainly didn’t.

There have been times in my life when I’ve wished I was *more* bossy! But different strokes for different folks, and not being bossy can just be a sign that you have a different style of leadership.


My youngest, in kindergarten, had issues with a a group of 5 year old girls we called “the posse’—5 adorable little blonds about 1/2 head shorter than my kid who was also quite active. They weren’t. They tried to bully her-“your feet are big” “your hair is ugly” etc….Now, had this happened to my oldest daughter, she would have been reduced to tears by this bullying…Not my youngest. She my got them all back by mixing up their pens in their cubbies when they weren’t looking-huge crisis in kindergarten-:) I got called in for her ‘bossy’ behavior. So i told the headmaster, “I’m glad to talk about this as long as the mothers of all this girls are in on it, too.” It went no further and my daughter never did get along with this group. They also never bothered her anymore.
Like I said in my last comment, I like bossy.
Thanks again, Justine-super post.


I think our time and energy is better spent helping girls feel empowered and competent enough to let words be words and keep moving forward. Telling girls that the word, “bossy” is in their way, is the wrong message. I’m an opinionated gal. In 3rd grade I won a star award for “Leadership.” People may very well call me “bossy” behind my back. So what? Words are words. They can call me whatever they want. I have other things to focus on. Girls are competent and strong and we need to support that self-image. I think as a culture we support boys in standing up to power struggles and girls to passively engage or develop a victim stance. People call names. It’s a fact. My son deals with it daily. I tell him to competently retort or walk away. If adults need to step in we do, but life as a leader isn’t paved with nice. I wish it were different, but the reality is, we’ve got bossy to deal with. Now I kinda want it on a t-shirt, too.


@Susan Giurleo kind go gal evidently…:)


i meant of…not go…:)


Lovely lovely lovely Mademoiselle Musk,
Thank you for guiding with your prose, perspective and a wee little nudge letting us know we were never alone.

I believed my bullying days were over after I graduated from school and frankly that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Bullying, mobbing and mean girls today still induce the pain and heartache sometimes piercing my spirit, but the threats and mobbing seem are on an adult level with real and often tragic consequences.

Once upon a time, I was a little girl on a bus who was bullied for years. In those days my sadness was deep and I felt there was something wrong with me. I believed in my heart that I must be those names they were calling me and to top it off I believed I must really be ugly.

Fast forward to now, twenty-six years later…
….my sadness is not solely because of torment and perceived rejection by my adult tormenters, but it stems from a pervasive sadness and disappointment in the groundings of humanity and spirit here on earth. It’s become an existential crisis instead of a personal one.

I no longer sink into a pool of sadness and self-hate for myself.

The mean girls who have intermittently shown up in my life today and in years past..the ones who at first induce a hopeful excitement inside me and sometimes lofty visions of a potential development for wine tastings, movie nights and slumber parties…
…..eventually and often, I would surmise 98% of the time, the burgeoning friendship with hope and promise for an adult like sisterhood produces unexpected bullying and attempts to do things like destroy my reputation and other not so lovely painful things of that nature.

My experiences have guided to a place of acceptance. A place where I accept the disappointing realities of the universe;

I realize it’s likely not going to change…
….and instead commit my spirit, love, and energy learning self care while refining my boundaries in order to operate and maneuver in the land of uncertain relations.

The odds are…. sometime somewhere another bully will show up so it’s essential I gain the tools, boundaries and resilience to move through the next “Mean Girls” real life movie with grace.

It’s messages like the one so beautifully melded together above who embrace me and make me believe again… believe that there may just be kind, understanding women like me who share a common worldview… and the most beautiful part of that is that I don’t feel so alone.

(please excuse grammar, spelling or missing elements. Time is not on my side, but this touched me so completely, I felt compelled to respond)


I could NOT even connect with that message nor find any women. (I work/ hang out with loads)- that connected with it. Im just saying its a hard sell.
The woman/girl described in this post is me.. I grew up in Kenya. The mean girls I had all the way from primary into high school- and you could call them “bossy” People did things alot of the time coz they felt threatened by them as a gang or feared falling out of favour of any one of them. I was the one that stood out.. STOOD OUT.. only reason i was put on sports teams e.g hockey was that i was more likely to hit break something even.. than konk the ball. However when it came to risk taking,midnight escapades, choosing to pursue subjects, topics, the road less travelled that hadn’t been thought of -this was my forte. I was used to not fitting in and that is one thing that has made me the leader I am today.

However I am lucky..comfortable childhood. In Kenya, in Africa and places I’ve traveled to- India, Brasil. Philipines being called “Bossy” does not even make the top 50 things a girl would be worried about- even if this was solely on work/career advancement.
Security is still a big thing.. any woman anywhere knows “i can get assaulted or raped..simply because i am female” (respect/security) the countless time we’ve called on each other to help us check ourselves lest what we are wearing or saying “sends off the wrong message” for any sort of encounter, business meeting, funeral, lunch etc- these are learned quite sadly from childhood- where you are told ‘sit this way. Do this or that,..but not this..This is for boys.’

Sure the message is being heard for the appropriate audience however #BanBossy would have gotten more impact if the message connected to something more personal to each girls sense of being even if it was simply “You are NOT less than. If I can do it, you can do it!”


I’ve said this in a couple of different conversations about this now, and I think it bears repeating… The whole “Ban Bossy” campaign just seemed like a slick marketing maneuver to bring awareness to a massively complex issue. Ban Bossy might not be anywhere close to a semantically correct description of the situation, but damn if it ain’t catchy!


That’s very true. She got the conversation going (again) and she gets huge credit for that.


I think the problem with “ban bossy” is it’s dividing women and causing us to typecast each other rather than doing anything to dismantle demeaning patriarchal stereotypes of women by women or men. Musk makes the excellent points that all labels tend to invoke demeaning stereotypes, and that female aggression is nuanced, neither all good or all bad, but even the example she gives of female to female aggression does more to invoke the anxiety about our relationships with each other than it does to illuminate the problems with “ban bossy.” (I kind of doubt that the socially sophisticated girls she cites would have themselves been labeled ‘bossy’–they sound adept at hiding controlling behavior behind a “sweet” facade–and the example flirts with another term, originally meaningful, that now risks becoming a stereotype–“mean” girl. Have many men responded to this campaign I wonder?


I have the feeling that many men either didn’t notice or don’t take it all that seriously.

What I should have clarified is that I think why women are having such an ambivalent reaction to this campaign is because, like me, they *have* experienced the controlling, overbearing side of girls that this campaign implies is always a false accusation. We have to allow girls to be girls in all of their full-blooded dimensions. And I think you’re right, we have to find a way of speaking honestly and openly about our relationships with each other — the bad as well as the good — without simply invoking anxiety and reinforcing stereotypes. We can do this by examining the larger patterns and cultural reasons why girls often feel compelled to send their anger and aggression underground, or why some women feel their piece of the pie is so small that they have to sabotage other women at work. Part of self-acceptance and self-love is being able to acknowledge the less-than-ideal aspects of yourself without denial or defensiveness; often just the fact of placing intelligent and compassionate attention on something is enough to compel it to change.

I get what Sheryl Sandberg is trying to do here and I definitely respect her for it — what other high-powered female executive has reached out from her insider position like this?


What you say above really makes sense to me–the need for us (women) to handle aggression directly whatever our style, quiet or loud or somewhere in-between, to understand when and why we are sometimes blocked from doing this and to make real changes, internal and external. Thank you!


Love all of this discussion. What Sandberg needs to do is get behind a STEM (science Tech, engineering, math) initiative encouraging more girls onto that career track. Stats say only 20% STEM graduates are female and over 50% college grads are female. STEM is a great fast track to the C-suite. Not that all women want to be there (or need to be) but we do need more women in high paying (influential) positions like Sheryl. The problem with the #BanBossy campaign is so well described here–i love this post! What we need is to shift into high gear! Cheers Ladies! You rock.


Thank you for this article. I have been called bossy too… and still is. I have a strong temper… meaning that I don’t like people pushing me down or men telling me that I am just a woman and should shut up. So…

I have been called bossy for numerous reason… because I said no to do something I didn’t want to do; because I have principles and am honest; because I go for my dreams and goals; because I have a vision and go for it; because I am a bit marginal and proud of it; because I have my way to do things and refuses to obliterate myself to please others who finally don’t give a s..t about me…

So, finally, a woman can be called bossy because she doesn’t fit too much in the male (and society) view of an obedient and silent lower part of the creation. Yes things has to change and it is not — like you said — in changing words it will come… it is in changing people’s mentallity about equality, about appreciating what the other being is really, in hearing their words, in seeing their humanity and their talents. It needs a change of perspective. Not easy but I thing it could be feasible.

Have a wonderful first spring Sunday all!!! :)


I LOVE and hate my daughters “bossiness”. It was recently noted after a playdate but actually she worked it out on her own without tears or my calling her anything (age 5). we all have different facets. why would someone parent by using a word and not an example or discussion anyway. All negative energy/ emotions should be controlled to enhance good leadership. are we conflating erratic emotion with “being bossy”? Im not sure, but I really dont get this too much. i live in the United States.


“Instead of drawing focus to how girls don’t fit the traditional male model of leadership, maybe we should look at how the model of leadership is changing, as is the world around it. It might even be time to encourage certain boys to be less bossy, that the way to increase your power is to assume the mental vantage point of the least powerful person in the room. And just as we shouldn’t criticize girls for acting quote-unquote ‘masculine’ (“that bitch”) we shouldn’t criticize boys for acting quote-unquote ‘feminine’ (“that pussy”). It might help to recognize that the most powerful and beloved leaders can tune into the crowd and move it from the inside out, combining traits that are associated with both genders.”

Yes! More than anything, to me, Sandberg’s campaign seems so…dated, and missing the point. As a single mom of two boys, on my better days I think that the fact that they are perhaps learning more traditionally “feminine” style leadership and social skills from me may benefit them, as the traditional “bossy” style of engaging and leading that has dominated our cultures loses a lot of its appeal. I hope they are learning how to really, really *listen* to someone else and attune to their needs and desires. To take others’ perspectives more easily. To see life and human beings as complicated and enmeshed with each other. To be less sure of anything except that everything changes and one should not be TOO sure of anything. These are the ways of being that the world needs more of now.

Sure, girls shouldn’t be any more vilified than boys for trying to impose their individual wills on others. But an even more important and radical campaign change would be something like: “promote questioning” or “let’s hear it for humility!”


As the mother of a daughter, and a girl myself, thank you for your wise thoughts. I have missed them.


I’m okay with the “Ban Bossy” campaign–not because I think banning “bossy” or any word is truly effective–it’s just a word, and banning it will only allow something else to rise in its place. Why I’m a fan is that people are now talking about–and thinking about–the traits we automatically assign as negative to girls.

We are talking about and thinking about these things, instead of the unconscious dismissal of girls as at all appropriate for leadership behavior. That, in my mind, is a good thing, and it’s a start from another point of entry outside “grown up” feminism.


I actually don’t like bossy people. Because the ‘bossy’ people i knew weren’t actually very clued in about life, and were generally very VERY unpleasant people. I am going to focus on girls here cos it’s girls I had a problem with. All the pushy “leader” type girls weren’t actually any better than the rest of us, they just knew how to lick-ass so got put in positions of leadership. I was bullied terrible by these girls, including the head girl at my school. I think people need to double check that the bossiness isn’t something more aggressive (i received death threats – which is extreme i know the majority of people wouldn’t have maybe experienced this).


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