Ban Bossy And Maybe Ban Bosses, Too

It likely came through your social-media feeds too: a video called "Ban Bossy" featuring Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jane Lynch, and other notables. They want us to encourage girls to be strong, to be leaders. But too often, when girls behave in an ambitious manner, they are labeled "bossy," among other words.

Turning that around seemed extremely worthwhile to me. As a writer, I can certainly attest to the power of words. Now, in this case, I don't know if one word is all that important, compared to overarching societal attitudes and the messages we impart to children. But I understand: If you want to go viral, you need a "hook."

So yes, my reaction was positive. Then a worry started creeping in: Let's motivate young women to lead, but let's not turn them into the nasty jerks that men in authority figures often become. (OK, I may have chosen a slightly different word or two.) I shared my thoughts on social media, advocating for lessons on fairness, dignity, and equality alongside ambition and strength.

I got "likes." Friends weighed in with comments, generally in agreement. But an opposing view from my friend Linda certainly grabbed my attention. She explained that the gender situation was much more complex than I had painted it. Linda pointed out boys' and girls' differing styles of play: That a boy will proclaim himself the leader (quarterback, etc.) and his friends accept that. Girls, on the other hand, will need to reach a consensus about who in the play group will fulfill different roles. And that these attitudes become hard-wired.

I appreciated Linda "calling me" on my pie-in-the-sky gut reaction – that the solution wasn't nearly as simple as what I'd typed up on Facebook in 14 seconds.

So I've been thinking some more, and not just about the fact that I didn't get invited to play football a whole lot. I guess I've been very lucky in my life to always be surrounded by strong, smart women – in school, at work, and in the personal arena. Yes, I've seen girls "hide their light under a barrel" to better fit in with their peers. And sure, I've been witness to many female "firsts" in my lifetime – Geraldine Ferraro and Danica Patrick and on and on – and it does seem pretty ridiculous that this deep into our history, there is still so much gender inequality. It's absurd, really. But still, my experience has always been, if a woman wanted to accomplish something, nothing could stand in her way. Maybe I've been a little blinded by an unusually supportive environment – parents, teachers, and friends.

Two children who play in a sandbox.
Getty Images
But what about those play styles? Do we really want girls to behave more like the boys in that scenario? It sounds to me like the girls have a much better set-up. Maybe if boys were exposed to this "mutually agreed-upon roles" concept, it would be pretty eye-opening. And why are they playing separately, anyway? OK, this is much more complicated than I initially thought.

Maybe I need to expand upon my original thesis, now that I have more than 14 seconds to mull it over. But I keep coming back to that idea: That simply preaching ambition could be dangerous. It could grow the culture of the (dun-dun-duuuuuh...) bad boss.

You've worked with them, haven't you? And for them. Bosses who care about nothing except being the boss. Or their job is just a meaningless way station en route to an even loftier position. Climbing for climbing's sake. ("Because it's there," as George Mallory said of Everest.) Our mad love affair with money likely plays a big role here, but the roots seem to go much deeper. It's the American way. King of the hill, top of the heap. That stupid Cadillac commercial with the guy in the suit.

And why are bosses so mean?!? Or awkward, or cold. I've wondered it time and again, and the answer scares me: To be a truly "successful" leader, do you also have to be a jerk? (Once again, I may be thinking of an alternate word here.) I don't know that it's necessarily about nastiness – maybe more about self-absorption. Caring only about yourself; focusing solely on your corporate rise. Think about politics: You have to be pretty full of yourself to run for office, don't you? To think you're worthy of that exalted spot, of calling the shots. Maybe leaders' seeming cruelty is just a side effect, because these lone wolves never learned to play well with others. (Does it always come back to playtime?)

I'm sure I'm over-simplifying again, but maybe I have a solution. Our message to children shouldn't just be one of ambition, but to be truly passionate about something. (People often assume that means a creative pursuit but it can be anything: accounting, nursing, insurance, sanitation – OK, maybe not sanitation.) By becoming an expert in your field, a leadership role will often spring naturally from it.

Yes, that's extremely idealistic. It's my little dream world where people succeed because of their qualifications – because they're good at what they do – instead of connections and "politics" and discrimination and a hundred other reasons. So maybe the passionate person won't always rise to the top. You might be off to the side a little. However, people will trust you because you genuinely know your stuff; they'll come to you. And that is not such a bad thing.

It doesn't guarantee that you won't end up an unkind jerk. People who are laser-focused on one area often have, let's say, "socialization" issues. So take a break once in a while – check in on somebody else's passion. It'll broaden your horizons, anyway.

I think kids can truly appreciate backing up your ambition with know-how. After all, if that self-proclaimed quarterback can't throw a tight spiral, he or she won't be taking snaps for long.

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