I have three daughters. Three young girls who are everything to me at this point in my life. Like any parent I spend a fair amount of time reflecting, thinking, and planning how to best go about setting the right examples, teaching the right lessons, and encouraging the right behaviors. Over the past seven years or so I have learned that conventional wisdom, while being very conventional is seldom wisdom. I have also learned that most frequently, when humans realize our conventional wisdom is wrong the response is to try to re-frame the outcome rather than trying to change the input.
Recently, we were introduced to the double standard of girls being called ‘bossy’ while little boys might be called ‘leaders’ for similar behavior. The idea stemmed from one of our daughters asserting herself and letting the rest of her group know that she had the answer and she was the one that was going to get the problem solved. And she was called ‘bossy’ for it. At first I was angry about name calling a seven year old. Then I considered the reasoning behind it. She was being bossy. I don’t like it but I don’t think I would like it from anyone. Which lead to my next thought. Is that the type of behavior we would call a boy a leader for displaying?
That’s not leadership. Assertiveness might be part of leadership but it’s not the only part. Authority might be granted to a leader but not every authority is a leader. And so to me, the question is not why are my daughters’ being admonished for behavior we would admire if they were boys. The question to me is why do we consider this leadership when it comes from anyone? Why do we accept this kind of behavior from anyone?
So I looked a little deeper into what about being called bossy is bad and why maybe having qualities that might get you called bossy is a good thing.
If I am understanding everything I am reading on the subject correctly, “bossy” people who are actually good leaders:
Aren’t afraid to say what they want.
Have a natural sense of authority.
Have a lot of self confidence.
Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
Aren’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong.
Are never ashamed of anything they do.
Tell it like it is.
These aren’t the qualities of a leader. These are the qualities of an asshole (sorry Grandma). Sure, plenty of men and women have achieved high levels of success while demonstrating these character qualities but that doesn’t make them good leaders. And if we are to believe any of the science looking at leadership, motivation, or similar fields of study over the last century, these people would have been far more effective and likely a fair bit more successful if they had not demonstrated the traits listed above. Because that is not leadership. We shouldn’t be encouraging any young person to demonstrate this behavior. We should be recognizing that these young people have an ability to demonstrate some leadership qualities and then as their guides and role models we should be explaining to them that their actions and attitudes towards the people they are working with are undermining their abilities as leaders.
Good leaders follow a dichotomy that takes the better part of a lifetime to master and takes a lot of humility and self reflection to even begin. A good leader is confident but not arrogant, they are ready to lead and to follow at the same time. Good leadership means that you have a plan but maintain the distance from that plan to see when it is not going well and you need to make a change. Good leaders understand that they are responsible for everything that happens within their sphere of influence and they step up to take the blame when there is blame to be taken but are willing to hand out the credit when things go right.
If they find themselves in a leadership position on a bad team, we should be there to explain to them – gently in the beginning – that it’s their fault. Because there are no bad teams, only bad leaders and almost every problem in any organization can be traced back to poor leadership. It’s that important.
So please, please, I beg of you do not tell my daughters that it is acceptable to be bossy. And don’t be surprised if I start telling your sons that it’s not alright for them to be bossy either. Instead of lowering the standard to remove a double standard, let’s raise the bar entirely and develop a generation of actual leaders.
Thank you for reading.