Global Leadership Blog

From Bossy to Bold: Embracing Female Leadership

In the last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has electrified the professional sphere for women. Now, to celebrate the publication anniversary of her best-selling book Lean In, Sandberg has joined with Girl Scouts to “Ban Bossy” – a movement designed to encourage female leadership.

The idea came from a dynamic frequently spotted on playgrounds across America; a little boy who asserts himself in a group is called a leader, but a little girl who does the same is chided for being bossy. While debating the word might seem like a frivolous semantic argument, this difference reflects deep conflicts in our cultural attitudes towards female leadership. Being called bossy tells little girls not to speak up or share their ideas or take risks. It’s an insidious dynamic with repercussions that last beyond childhood; by middle school, girls are less interested than boys in leadership and stay that way into adulthood.

“Ban Bossy” shares tips for parents, girls, educators and managers to encourage confidence and leadership in girls, but it’s also sparked a conversation around the conundrum so many professional women face: How can you be perceived as assertive and influential in the workplace without seeming bossy? If being a boss is a good thing, why is being bossy bad? And why is it a word applied to little girls so often but not little boys.

A new breed of leadership

The answer to the last question, of course, is that boys are expected to take charge and demonstrate leadership. When girls are assertive, or direct others, it subverts the social expectation that boys are best qualified to be in charge.

That’s a problematic reality – yet as we look at the first two questions, there’s no denying that “bossy” has a negative connotation. Often it’s associated with someone who demonstrates a pushy management style, or is unwilling to listen or collaborate. At the same time, the word can be unfairly slapped on a woman who’s demonstrated a decisive and driven style. (Two key leadership characteristics, it’s worth noting.)

Complicating the matter is the evolution of our business world, which has been heading in the direction of enhanced compassion, collaboration and diplomacy: what is often called a flat hierarchy. The most successful leaders today, male and female, must understand how to lead both gracefully and effectively.

So just what is the secret to striking the right balance in the workplace – how can women assert themselves and take charge without the dreaded bossy label? Below are some tips.

1. Be collaborative – ask for joint decisions and draw on other people’s abilities and strengths, rather than viewing them as competition.

2. Listen to multiple perspectives and factor them into the decision-making process.

3. Because relationship building is important, socialize people individually on ideas or concepts to help gain buy-in.

4. Remain unemotional, neutral and clear in your communication style, especially with men.

5. Delegate presentations and decisions to show you value others’ contributions.

Not sure where you fall in the bossy debate? Ask yourself these questions; the answers might illuminate paths to more fair and effective dynamics in your own workplace.

  • Have you been called bossy before, or called someone else bossy?
  • Do you react to assertive women differently than to assertive men?
  • Have you used specific techniques to avoid the bossy label while taking charge on the job?
  • Does your workplace feature domineering or command and control leadership styles? How have you tried to foster positive, collaborative leadership?
Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication.
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