Beyoncé wants us to stop using the b-word. Not that b-word, the other one: bossy.
The pop-star-slash-professional-buzz-builder is one of the celebrity spokespeople in the new “Ban Bossy” campaign, an initiative from Lean In leadership guru Sheryl Sandberg in partnership with the Girl Scouts of America.
In a just-launched (and already viral) video, prominent independent women such as Queen Bey, Condoleezza Rice, Diane von Furstenberg, Jane Lynch and Jennifer Garner advocate for an end to the word bossy, because it has no place in the modern lexicon. “I’m not bossy,” Beyoncé says, “I’m the boss.” It’s a great tag line and an important issue – plus it’s a direct order from Beyoncé, so chances are the Oxford English Dictionary is already ordering a recall of the “B” section.
But is banning bossy really the right approach? Like its big sister, bitchy, bossy is seen as problematic because of the negative spin it casts on aggressive female behaviour. (Men can’t really be bossy because inherent in the word is the inappropriateness and unladylike-ness of the actions it describes.) The Ban Bossy campaign highlights these inequalities, and that is good, but it also goes further to equate aggressive behaviour with good leadership – and that is misguided.
In a recent interview with Parade magazine, Sandberg explained how she tells parents that rather than saying, “My daughter is bossy,” they should say, “My daughter has executive leadership skills.” The implication being that these two things are not only interchangeable, but that one defines the other. As anyone who has dealt with a dictatorial five-year-old knows, this is not generally the case. Nor is it reflective of the contemporary leadership landscape, where being a “bossy” boss of either gender is fast becoming as outdated as the three-martini power lunch.
“The old school leadership method – do what I say, not what I do – is not flying any more,” said Carolyn Lawrence, president of Women of Influence Inc., a Canadian organization that recognizes the accomplishments of high powered women in the work force. Lawrence, a chief executive officer at age 29, has been called bossy (“and the other b-word”), but said that along with gender stereotypes, it’s this notion of a master and commander that is outdated: “When I became a leader, I had to find my own voice – not bossy, not ladylike, but balanced.”
Lawrence predicts a corporate future where bull-headed men (and women) will have to do the same, and said it’s already happening. “A lot of the great female CEOs that are up right now use a lead-by-example model. They value consensus and collaboration and build trust and respect in order to lead,” she said, citing Royal Bank of Canada board chair Kathleen Taylor and Betty DeVita, president of Master Card Canada. “[DeVita] was one of the first women who I saw leading in a way that was authentically female. She has figured out how to be strong and female at the same time. It made me think that we really are going to see a shift,” Lawrence said.
Kirstine Stewart, managing director of Twitter Canada, believes the issue isn’t so much around banning the word bossy as making sure that everyone is clear on its meaning. “The word bossy is misused when it refers to the girl who wants to lead a group or lead the way,” she said. Actual bossiness, she added, is unacceptable in the modern workplace regardless of which bathroom you use. “I don’t know any effective leaders who are bossy.
You can’t be leader if that’s how you act.”
This wasn’t always the case. Even 10 years ago, workplaces operated according to a more military chain of command. Today, the advancement of women has helped to change that, said Christie Mann, a Toronto-based leadership coach who has worked with high-level executives at McDonald’s and Bank of Montreal. “We are seeing management leaning toward effective listening, intuition, understanding.” Traditionally these were referred to as soft skills, but today it’s difficult to get by without them.
The ascent of millennials in the workplace is also forcing the fist-banging old autocrat to change his – or her – ways. “One of the things I do is try to get senior executive to imagine what it would be like to have grown up on social media, getting instant gratification for what you do as soon as you do it,” Mann said. This might seem like bowing to a generation of self-involved ingrates but the reality is, the millennial sensibility – the desire to be included in the overall vision of a company and to feel like a valued team member – has helped bring about workplaces in which leaders encourage the free flow of ideas and inspire by example.
That the Ban Bossy campaign is calling attention to what we mean when we use that word is important. Sandberg said that she was called bossy when she was a girl and that it made her feel as if she were doing something wrong; it made her question her place in the pecking order. But maybe she was doing something wrong. When I was younger, I spent several years ordering around my younger sister as if she were an indentured servant. This is not behaviour I am proud of; more importantly, it’s not a personal “achievement” you’ll find listed on my résumé. We shouldn’t call young girls bossy – nor should we encourage that kind of aggressive leadership. By making “bossy” and “good leader” synonymous, we devalue what it means to be the latter.