Bossiness Is Not a Leadership Trait, No Matter What Sheryl Sandberg Says

by Evil HR Lady on February 22, 2019

Note: This Sheryl Sandberg quote keeps showing up and I have strong feelings, so I’m re-running.

“I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills,'” said Sheryl Sandberg. The COO of Facebook says she was told this, and look at her now! This quote keeps showing up on my Facebook feed, and while I love my friends, this quote is driving me nuts.

Bossy is not leadership. In fact, bossy is the opposite of leadership. Being bossy is a skill that every 2-year- old has mastered. Bossy is “shut up and do it my way; I know best!” Leadership is the opposite.

Bossy girls are sometimes queen bees–with their little minions following after them. This mimics leadership, but it’s not. Queen bees attain their positions of power by tearing other girls down, by instilling fear, and by being the prettiest, or the one with the best clothes. These girls are masters of manipulation and persuade the adults that they are just that–leaders. But anyone who has ever been a victim of one of these “bossy” little girls knows that it isn’t leadership.

What’s more, bossy women like to keep other women down.

So what is leadership?

To keep reading, click here: Bossiness Is Not a Leadership Trait, No Matter What Sheryl Sandberg Says

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Steph February 22, 2019 at 6:07 pm

Completely disagree. What our culture defines as bossiness has nothing to do with being pretty, or having nice clothes, or putting other women down. Our culture defines bossiness as a woman who is not afraid to use her voice, and most of us are punished for that, particularly as children.

I think what the “bossiness is leadership” quote really means is “leadership is little girls is labelled as bossiness.” THAT’S what we need to quit doing. Stop telling girls to be quiet and listen to everyone else. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.

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CEMgr February 27, 2019 at 3:10 am

Agree totally.

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DC February 22, 2019 at 6:50 pm

I saw Sheryl Sandberg speak at a SHRM conference, and the context of her statement had to do with gender roles and expectations. The point of her statement was that when boys or men act confidently or give direction, they are seen as authoritative and confident. When women do so, they are seen as bossy. She then asked all men in the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever been called “bossy.” One did (it was an auditorium sized room, so quite a few men, albeit more women than men). When she asked the women to raise their hands, almost all the hands went up. She did make the comment you posted — more as a joke to end her discussion of sexism and how the same acts are perceived differently when done by men vs. women. She gave a very good speech.

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AD February 22, 2019 at 7:20 pm

I feel like you’re missing the point a bit. Girls and women are often called bossy for simply being assertive and putting themselves forward as a leader, while boys/men are lauded for acting the same way. I was called bossy many times as a girl and student and it was certainly not for “Shut up, do it my way!” behavior. It was because I didn’t sit back and let the boys control everything when I knew I had something to offer. I really don’t believe that Sandberg is, in any way, saying that “bossiness is leadership.”

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Fred March 8, 2019 at 12:53 pm

I’ve often found that ‘bossy’ people are those who have a) no right to take command and b) those who don’t know what they’re talking about. For example, a schoolgirl bossing her peers around is unlikely to be popular because she’s telling them what to do (particularly if she doesn’t know what she’s doing.)

However, someone with a demonstrated record tends to do better – if a boy shows skill on the football field, his opinion on tactics is taken seriously because he’s good at football.

The core problem, however, is a little more complex. The average man knows just how far he can ‘lean in’ without coming across as threatening to other men; the average woman does NOT know this (it can only be learnt through experience) and by the time she becomes an adult and goes into business it can be too late. Anyone trying to ‘lean in’ can go too far – and, when they do, they get pushback.

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BethRA February 22, 2019 at 7:45 pm

^ What they said.

As much as I’ve pulled muscles rolling my eyes at Sandberg-ism, her point is not the being “bossy” is good, or good leadership, but that girls (and women of all ages) are often seen as/labeled as “bossy” for what would otherwise be considered simple assertiveness or leadership.

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grannybunny February 22, 2019 at 8:20 pm

The other commenters beat me to it. Sandberg’s point — which, apparently, was totally missed — was referring to the double standard existing toward men and women in organizations. As previously noted, an assertive man will be seen as a go-getter and true leader; whereas, an assertive woman might be — falsely — accused of being bossy, or something even worse. Don’t buy into that double standard and mouth the criticisms common to those seeking to maintain the current, gender inequitable, status quo.

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Kathy February 22, 2019 at 8:23 pm

I can see it both ways. The term “bossy” has a range of applications from the one EHRL used – a spoiled child’s “We’re gonna play by my rules or I’ll take my ball and go home!” – to the office version that’s shorthand for “how dare that woman tell me what to do even if she is my manager!” The first denotes a lack of leadership and the second a lack of followership.

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Observer February 22, 2019 at 10:27 pm

Actually, Sandberg SAID what she meant – and it’s simply that the word “bossy” is a gendered insult that is used to describe the exact same qualities that are called leadership in men. And, by and large, she is completely correct.

Here is some context for that quote. In the first TED talk where she talked about what was to become “Lean In”, she mentioned a study where a bunch of Harvard Bussiness students were handed a case study. Half of them read about a business leader named Harriet, while the other half read about Harry. That was the ONLY difference between the two case studies. Yet, most of the readers saw Harry in a very positive way – a good leader, a good potential mentor, someone good to work under and to learn from. Harriet, on the other hand, was seen very negatively – in for herself, bossy and abrasive. Now, remember, we are talking about the EXACT same behavior. The only thing that was changed was the name of the person and the gender pronouns.

In the “Ban Bossy” talk, it was a much smaller audience, and she asked for a show of hands for how many of the women in the audience had ever been called “bossy”. I would estimate that between 90-95% of the women raised their hands. When she asked the men? 2 or three hands went up. The numbers are telling Unless you are seriously going to argue that it’s reasonable to assume that the audience really would be made up of primarily genuinely nice men and b****y women.

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CEMgr February 27, 2019 at 3:11 am

You are completely right. Suzanne did not understand the comment thoroughly.

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jdgalt February 23, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A real leader is the same whether he’s a man or a woman – calm, confident, and mature. He earns respect, and does not need to demand it. Margaret Thatcher was a real leader.

Bossy people are those who feel they need to “prove” their dominance, and they too come in both sexes. Janet Reno was so bossy, she insisted on taking personal command of the Waco standoff from thousands of miles away. Result: hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

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charles February 24, 2019 at 3:20 pm

Quite frankly, I found Sheryl Sandberg’s whole “ban bossy” campaign to be rather “bossy” itself.

The campaign was think like she does or your an idiot who doesn’t “get it.”

case in point:

Her claim that women are called bossy while men aren’t ignores the fact that men who are bossy are called much worse than bossy.

So, asking women to raise their hand if called bossy and then comparing that to men who raised their hand if called bossy isn’t a straight forward comparison. It made for a great “show and tell” gimmick; but, it didn’t prove anything – except, perhaps, for some confirmation bias on her and the audience’s part.

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Sherri February 25, 2019 at 4:05 pm

I think most of the commenters missed the point of the article, which is what should be said to KIDS that are “bossy”. Nearly every single child at some point exhibits bossy behavior. We should not be cheering childhood bossiness, but channeling it into real leadership qualities.

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AD February 25, 2019 at 10:20 pm

Charles, please share your examples of how boys and men are called “much worse” and be sure to explain exactly what kind of behavior elicits the name calling. I’d be very curious to hear all of these stories about how boys are damaged and given the message to sit down, shut up, and let the girls run things. Because, in my experience, that’s the message our society has been giving girls for eons–not the other way around.

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Fred March 8, 2019 at 12:58 pm

I don’t know about Charles, but I can say from my own experience that excessively-bossy men get called things like d***head, fascist b******, and – my personal favourite – Pointy-Haired Boss.

They can get respect, if it is clear they know what they’re doing. But they’re not liked. And when they don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re personally offensive, they provoke disrespect and resistance. In schoolyards, they’re the ones who get ignored by everyone else – and they can’t get higher authority to make them noticable.

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Nicholas Moses March 5, 2019 at 6:51 pm

The problem with Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign stems I think from her failure to adequately define – quantitatively and qualitatively – “bossy.” I won’t pretend to be up to that task (see below). Suzanne Lucas’s assertion seems to be that “bossy” is an objective quality which is negative in any leader, male or female. Maybe she’s right. Or, maybe others are right and there is a double standard: that some or all of the same qualities that are viewed negatively as “bossy” in women are viewed positively in men.

However, I cannot pretend to be arbitrer as to the actual or proper usage of “bossy” for a simple reason. All throughout my school years I cannot remember once using the word “bossy” to describe anyone, male or female (and this is not because I have a rose-colored view of my childhood self: on the contrary, I remember several instances where I was quite the arrogant and presumptuous little jerk). And I never heard any other boy calling any boy OR girl “bossy.”

I did, however, routinely hear GIRLS calling other girls (but never boys) “bossy.”

I don’t know if that means anything, but perhaps it is an observation of interest.

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