Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

When I was in first grade, my teacher at the end-of-year conferences told my mom that I was very bright but bossy. Much to my teacher’s dismay, my mom laughed and said “Good. That will serve her well later on.”

My mom, rarely a person to push back, was way ahead of the curve on this one.
As I watch my bright and “bossy” little girl, I have thought a lot about the label “bossy” that we are so quick to slap on little girls. (Never in my life have I heard a little boy described as “bossy”.)

So I conducted an informal survey among my Twitter followers and Facebook friends, which include many women who are leaders in a host of roles and positions, from service leadership to business executives. I asked, “if you received external recognition for leadership, were you ever described as ‘bossy’ when you were a child?”

On my Twitter account, which includes mostly professional acquaintances, I had a reply that leadership isn’t telling people what to do. I agree with that, but I don’t think that we are applying the term bossy to girls who tell people what to do. We apply it to girls who generate ideas, who organize people and activities, who assign roles (not the same as micromanaging), who dig in and start doing and expect people to join in. We also apply it to little girls who stick up for themselves by insisting on doing things their way or not following the crowd. These are all leadership characteristics. Yet when they show up in young girls, we call it bossiness. If a little boy does this he is either a “natural leader” or “bad”.

“Good” girls are the ones who do exactly as they are told, follow directions to a “T” and color within the lines. In their art work, the grass is never purple, and the sun is always yellow.

So on one hand we praise exactness, following directions with no deviation, but if that same little girl tries to get someone else to try to do something exactly the way she did something (which is what she had been told she is supposed to do), suddenly she is “bossy”.

Confusing? I think so.

On Facebook the reaction to my question was a swift and resounding “yes” from women friends whom I know are terrific and often humble leaders. One even commented that “bossy” was the first word recorded in her baby book. Frankly many of us, including me, are proud of our “bossiness”, although I prefer to call it assertiveness, because that is what it is. While being called out for bossiness by authority figures, I was simultaneously called out for congeniality by my peers. So maybe people in authority just get it wrong. (Uh oh, now I’m just being rebellious.)

We don’t want our little girls or our little boys to be doormats. We do want them to value a high-quality job done right. We want them to value hard work and solid effort. We do want them to read and follow directions, until those directions don’t make sense, then we want them to have the self-confidence to modify the directions, be creative and make things better. We want them to do all of these things and not run over other people, maintaining genuine respect for all others (and for the opinions and thoughts of others) at the same time.

Just think, if everyone had the confidence to stickup from herself (or himself), confidence that would allow them to see the value of all others in the world, maybe the world would be far more humane place. Maybe we should be cultivating little leaders, not little followers.

Of course, little leaders are annoying as can be when you are their parent. But, that bossiness? It will serve them well later on.

©2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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