“Bossy” is not the R-Word

Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg are two women I am not eager to take issue with–I admire them both. I want my daughter–and son–to admire them, too. The two women are smart, independent, confident and successful people who run huge business enterprises with effectiveness, and, probably, with grace and compassion. Maybe they bring the hammer down, too, now and again, when they’re not getting the results they want. Bosses do that sometimes.

They have this new campaign to “Ban Bossy,” because words matter and apparently by middle school, some girls are not eager to be leaders because they fear being called “bossy.” Hmmm.

Look–I don’t want my children or my nieces or nephews or any other child to be called a name out of animosity or as an unintentional put-down. I don’t want any child hurt because of the ignorant or intended use of a hurtful word. Try using the R-word in front of me. I will bring the hammer down on your psyche.

But a girl being called bossy? Maybe I’m a jerk, but it doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is what a girl’s reaction to the word might be… what any person’s reaction might be to a word that is neither cruel nor vile.

I say this, as a likely jerk (but not a cruel nor vile one), because I too, have been called bossy. The thing is, I am quite content with *being* bossy. I’m good at it. And to all the girls (and women) out there who don’t like to be or don’t want to be called bossy?

Get ready for some advice from a middle-aged bossy pants. (Advice, not law. My opinion, not fact. If you’re a bossy girl like me, you probably love rules. But what I’m about to say? Ignore it or lap it up, I’m okay with either.) Here goes.

If you’re being called bossy, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) you’re being a bad boss, and the person using the word has a limited vocabulary and intends to say something else, or 2) you’re being a good boss, and the person using the word just doesn’t feel like being bossed by you.

If it’s reason number 2 — well, relax. You can’t change that. Maybe play a different game, or try another tactic. (Read on, this will make sense in a couple paragraphs.)

But what’s a girl to do with reason number 1?

For starters, what’s a bad boss? Well, a bad boss loves, or needs, to be around people who agree with her and do things for her. A bad boss doesn’t communicate her goals or needs very well, and kind of expects people to just *know.* A bad boss is quick to lose her temper and punish her subordinates rather than help them improve. A bad boss tends to speak loudly, and not very nicely, to the people she bosses. A bad boss takes credit for the good others do, and blames others when she makes a mistake.

And a good boss? Well, she’s basically the opposite of all that above. She likes to surround herself with people who think differently some, if not all the time. She’s actually a bit suspicious of those who are too nice to her, too eager to do what she wants. She is always very clear about what she wants, and is eager to learn what other people want. She doesn’t lose her temper very often, and if she does, it’s for a damn good reason. Mostly though, she wants to help people be better at whatever they’re doing. She tends to speak less and listen more. She will take the blame for her subordinates without hesitation, and she will give (and broadcast) credit to those same folks freely. She shares. She knows she’s not perfect. She’s knows she’s not alone.

Come to think of it, she sounds a lot like a good friend (just one who is ultimately accountable and has a certain level of power over you).

So. If somebody calls you bossy, know that yes, you are a leader, you are comfortable being in charge, you have high expectations, you are ambitious, all that good stuff. But… Yes, “but.”

If somebody calls you bossy, you–as all effective leaders do–need to look at yourself. Think about how you’re treating people. Sometimes people say “bossy” when they mean “dismissive” or “impatient” or “self-centered.” You know, that bad-boss vibe.

And kids don’t always have the best or most accurate vocabulary. Sometimes they just mean “mean.” Are you listening to others and caring about their opinions? Are you being patient? Are you treating your friends well? Do your friends just want a chance to be in charge, too? Are you sharing? Are you acknowledging that you might not be right?

I don’t want to hurt your feelings with this advice, and I especially don’t want the word “bossy” to hurt your feelings. I want all the bossy girls out there to *own* their bossiness, and know that they always have a choice: be a good boss, or be a bad boss.

After all, being called “bossy” didn’t stop Sheryl Sandberg, did it? I’m guessing that she’s an excellent boss, at least most of the time (being human, and all).

Banning  the word “bossy” won’t change much. Hearing “leadership skills” instead of “bossy” won’t make you a better leader, a better boss, or even a better friend.

Leadership. Friendship. These are actions. They are the result of learned behaviors.

So be bossy, already. Be a friend. Lead, listen, and learn. Lean in, too, if you want.

Just always be willing to be better at it.

**Updated** Just watched this ABC news piece on first-grade girls’ reactions to the word. Girls in that television segment seemed to understand that it was a *behavior* that was evoking a negative reaction from the person using the word “bossy.” “People don’t like to be bossed around.” Exactly, little girl. I’ll say this in another way. For some reason, there are women out there who have been called “bossy” and it didn’t change their ambitions. There are girls like that, too: 2/3 of them, per the research cited. Rather than banning a word, how about we focus on what makes those 2/3 less concerned about the word?

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