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The Troubling Subtext of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” Campaign

This month – March – is Women’s History Month, and this year has already been marked by more candid conversations about women in business. Harvard Business School’s Dean Nohria began the year with a blunt admission that the school had not treated its female students fairly, and a promise to do better.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, in partnership with Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez, launched a celeb-studded Ban Bossy campaign to discourage that particular adjective, which most often has a negative- and female- connotation. This campaign has garnered a lot of attention, and not just because it stars Beyoncé.

Sheryl Sandberg

Basically, Sandberg and Chávez argue that assertive girls and women too often get slapped with the label “bossy”, which can discourage confidence and leadership. This is certainly a problem, and as an assertive woman myself, and proud head of my own company, I can see the sting. But I, and many others, have been left wondering if this is really the problem that we should be focusing our energies on. (For a quick roundup of different opinions, see this Time recap).

I certainly agree that confidence and assertiveness in women should be encouraged. But the narrow focus on banning the word bossy seems to imply that being classically “bossy” is the only way to get ahead. Sandberg and others associated with this campaign clearly mean well, and their own careers offer tremendously inspiring examples for young girls. But, the unintentional subtext of the campaign is troubling. We need to be wary of implying that the only way for a woman to succeed in business is to act like a stereotypically “bossy” man. As Time writer James Poniewozik puts it, “We need to fight double standards, but not by encouraging everyone to act like the most obnoxious men.”

I know plenty of people- men and women- who are wonderful leaders and yet who I would not necessarily call bossy. Our young people- boys and girls- need to know that there is a difference between being a leader and being bossy. They need to know that if every person in a B-school class or a company made it their mission to be “bossy”, we would be left with total dysfunction. Just as our bodies require many different organs to function properly, our companies and our societies need many kinds of leadership to thrive. In my opinion, we should focus our energies on encouraging young women (and men) to find their own leadership style. It might be that they are “bossy”- and that is fine. But if they are not classically bossy, they need to know that they can still be leaders.

beyonce-ban-bossy-ftr

In my own career and life, the leaders that I admire most are the ones who achieve balance. Balancing talking with listening, work with family, and “bossiness” with humility. Balancing stereotypical female traits— vulnerability, emotion— with stereotypical male ones— assertiveness, boldness. The efficacy of being “bossy” is entirely situational. Sandberg rightly emphasizes that young women should not be defined by the presence of that word. But, they should not be defined by its absence either. You do not have to be bossy to lead- you simply need to know yourself and trust in your unique combination of strengths. To me, that trust is far more powerful than any word.

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