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.