“Being labeled something matters.”
“There are no limits.”
“Dare to be you.”
“I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”
These soundbites from Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner and others as part of the Ban Bossy campaign mean to promote a positive message for girls. They want to affirm girls’ confidence in leadership. The assumption is that these girls are not bossy, but are being labeled as such because of their assertiveness and strength as a leader. I’m all for teaching leadership skills early. But I’m also all for ending what author Annie Downs has identified as the mean girl epidemic.
There is a place to encourage both girls and boys to “be yourself,” to be a confident leader, to throw off negative labels and to overcome obstacles. However, there is also a place for calling out what truly is bossy behavior and poor “leadership skills.” In fact, something has gone seriously wrong with our very concept of leadership if bullying and mean girl attitudes are affirmed as being “strong leadership qualities.”
I am not a parent, but I have watched friends guide their little leaders into a proper understanding of what it means to confidently assert their opinions, ideas and advice. There is a difference between showing promise as a future executive and showing rudeness, selfishness and entitlement.
This is the problem with labels (see also: my article about entitlement). They tend to leave two options: conform to the label or rebel against it. In the case of the Ban Bossy campaign, they only take into consideration one of the two options. While it is true that many kids shrink back, stop raising their hands or become withdrawn and apologetic when called “bossy,” there are also kids who are truly being bossy and now see this as their identity. If being bossy means I get what I want, bring on the entitlement. After all, “there are no limits,” right?
The thing is, in a Kingdom-focused leader, there are limits. Respect for others and honor of authority are both biblical, as is daring to be our truest selves: not who our prideful flesh desires to be but who God has called us to be. We should raise up younger leaders and recognize their gifts, but we must be careful in what we affirm and what we rebuke.
Kristen Howerton puts it best in her post at her blog “Rage Against the Minivan”:
“As therapists, boundaries and empathy are pretty high on the list of values we want to impart to our kids… If I catch my girls (or boys) ordering friends around, refusing to listen to the boundaries of others, or failing to consider how others feel as they act like a tyrant, they certainly won’t be getting an affirmation from me. Being pushy is not a leadership skill. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that “bossy” describes the behavior of most bullies. Should we affirm their leadership?”
Sometimes catching this behavior early can be helpful, however. Instead of ending the conversation with a negative label like “bossy,” we can affirm positive leadership traits and redirect the bad. But we can’t ban the word altogether if we are to end the behavior.
As Laura Ortberg Turner said in her Christianity Today article on the Ban Bossy movement:
“I was called bossy plenty of times growing up, and rightly so. I was a bossy kid, and it’s still one of the things about me I have to deal with. Sometimes it’s a good thing, a signal of a take-charge attitude and leadership skills, and sometimes, it’s too much. Knowing that I have a tendency to be bossy helps, though. Self-awareness is one of the greatest assets any leader can bring to the table.”
So how do we know the difference between “bossy” and effective leadership?
Bossy believes “my way is the only way.”
Leadership listens to the opinions of others and takes them into consideration.
Bossy believes the rules are only for other people.
Leadership understands why the rules were put in place and when they are worth breaking.
Bossy believes “I am the ultimate authority.”
Leadership knows “I am only a small piece in the puzzle.”
Bossy is looking out for #1.
Leadership looks to the needs of those around them.
Bossy believes “others exist to serve me.”
Leadership makes the world a better place for others.
Bossy is stubbornly prideful.
Leadership is confidently humble.
What would you add? How can you affirm leadership in your teens and discourage true bossiness?