Too Bossy? Two Authors, Two Views


The following article is written by two authors, Janelle McLaughlin and Bruce Cabell… The Writing Guy. Since many comments and articles have been written about bossy and leadership the past 7-10 days, Janelle and Bruce share their personal and professional views and/or experiences. This article can be read on both authors’ LinkedIn Profiles. Please read, enjoy, and tell us what you think.

Janelle’s Views and Experiences:

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.”  Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.”

I’ve heard this said before, but I pulled this direct quote from an entire website dedicated to the cause: Which makes me wonder, do we need to ban the word bossy? As a child, a teacher, and a parent I have encountered the use of the term. Sometimes I have been the victim, sometimes the perpetrator. Did being called ‘bossy’ as a child impact my personality, or the development of leadership characteristics? Is there a better term to use? Is the term used only with girls/women?

I remember my second grade year very clearly. I’m not sure why that year stands out a bit sharper than other years, but it does. I had a group of girls that I played with every day. There were about seven of us. Wonder Woman was huge on TV at that time, and we often played WW at recess. Typically, I was the one who organized and led the endeavor. Until one day, I went to recess and none of my friends would play with me. I was sad and confused and went to my teacher for encouragement and support. Instead, she yelled at me. She said I was too bossy and that nobody would want to be my friend if that’s how I acted. Maybe she was right. I don’t know. But it crushed me. Could she have said it differently? Could she have offered solutions instead? Such as, “Maybe you should take turns deciding what to play.” I am pretty sure that rift in my recess group only lasted a day, but that day was heartbreaking for me.

Now, let’s fast forward to my present life. I have a twelve-year-old daughter. She is intelligent, imaginative, and funny. Yes, there may be some parent bias there, but I’m pretty sure there’s not. She’s pretty awesome. I still remember her at two and three years old. She’d give my husband and I detailed directions on how to play, act, and talk in whatever imaginary play we were engaging in. It did get annoying, to tell you the truth. Did we tell her she was being bossy? No. She has done the same thing with her little brother. She loves to be in charge of whatever they are doing, and because he is the adoring younger brother (he’s pretty darn amazing, too), he often goes along with it. For instance, they would be in the basement, and I would hear her tell him to go to her room on the second story to get something. This could happen several times in the same game. And he does it every time. Have I told her to quit being bossy? Yes, I have. I’ve even told him that he doesn’t have to do everything she tells him to. His response one time was, “But, I like serving her!” Okay…go for it, buddy.

As my husband and I discuss our kids’ gifts and interests, we identify many leadership characteristics in our daughter (our son, too, actually, just displayed differently). Is she going to be successful and well-respected if she just orders people around all day? Of course not. But, fortunately, I don’t think her younger brother will end up working for her. She is kind, sensitive, and strong. I don’t want her to see herself as bossy. I want her to be confident in the leadership skills she possesses.

I think adults need to be careful in how they label children, in general, and this is true with the term “bossy,” as well. I realize that we can’t say, “Now, Janelle, you are being too strong of a leader for your friends, right now.” That’s not my point. We can’t take negative actions and give them positive labels. Likewise, however, we can’t take strong, confident personalities and break them down by labeling them “bossy.” Better yet, let’s get rid of labels altogether, and just encourage children (and adults!).

Bruce’s Views and Experiences:

First, let me begin by saying, “It’s not meant for every child and adult to become a leader. Every human has the opportunity, but many don’t see it as their purpose in life.”

I know many of you have heard or read Sheryl Sandberg’s statement, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.” With all due respect, I believe Ms. Sandberg should restate her concern to, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she “may” have leadership potential.”

There’s been a movement to ban “bossy” and if we proceed to prohibit this term, what are we teaching our children; our girls; not to stand up, speak up, and resolve the issue at hand? It’s an effective strategy to teach and hand our children the tools to persist and resolve problems in and out of school. Why? They’ll be faced with many as they journey into middle and high school, college, and life.  

So, should we ban bossy? If so, tell me what you think about these attributes:

aggressive, careless, cruel, dishonest, greedy, impatient, inconsiderate, nosy, irresponsible, jealous, lazy, mean, moody, naughty, rude, selfish, stingy, stubborn, thoughtless, unkind, unreliable, etc.

Should we ban these words too?  And does bossy actually discourage girls from leading or is it possible that some girls lack the interest to lead; the same with boys too? If research shows bossy discourages girls, then we should be proactive as parents and educators. No… not by banning bossy; that’s the easy way out; by TEACHING and LEADING!

Living a life of an educator for 28 years brought many experiences; a fraction of it was resolving name-calling. I heard bossy many times in the classroom and on the playground; directed at boys and girls. Let me say that again. BOSSY was directed at boys and girls! In several scenarios, if boys were domineering and pushy, they were never called a leader. And that thought never crossed my mind. Never! They were called bossy (not by me). Did the boys run to me and tell me? Yes. Did it hurt their feelings? Yes. Through my day to day interactions with children, bossy affected both genders.

So, what was my action plan when students lacked the social skills and respect toward each other? I turned it into a teachable moment. I modeled how to turn the actions of being bossy into actions of being a leader. And if I couldn’t reach those children who were bossy, then I modeled how to react to bossy situations. You see… my students were learning important lessons and numerous strategies to survive or cope with today’s issues.

Now, there’s a huge difference between bossy and leadership, but I’ve read a couple of statements that have sent mixed messages. Here’s an example from Amy Poehler: “I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means someone’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.” Here is another one: B is for Bold + Brave = Bossy

Are they accurate? Read the bossy statement below. This is an example of what I experienced on the playground. But please note I turned the bossy statement into a leadership statement.

Bossy: Michael, you can’t play soccer with your friends. We’re playing kickball, so you have to play with us.

Leadership Potential: Michael, you can make a choice. You can play your soccer game with your friends, or you can play kickball with us. If you decide to play with your friends, and then change your mind, let us know.

The example above shows the difference between bossy and leadership. It’s the choice of words, tone, and actions. This is what we need to teach our children.

There are many women who are wonderful leaders and I’m curious to know if they were ever branded with the term bossy at a young age. And if so, what did they learn, how were they able to persist, and did they reach that leader status?

Life is about learning. You’ll have many negative and positive experiences from childhood to adulthood. No one will be able to escape the countless situations during their journey. But each will bring a lesson that will in turn, enhance a wiser human being; a different human being. 

So, perhaps the lessons of being bossy developed the skills of persistence. Perhaps the lessons of being selfish helped you to open your heart to others. Perhaps the lessons of being unreliable pushed you to become a responsible person. Perhaps the lessons of being greedy helped you realize it’s time to give to others. Again, I’m not promoting the use of these labels or attributes. I know they can be quite hurtful and harmful, but do you think it was meant to be? Do you think you needed to hear these words to make a change within yourself; within life?

To conclude, think about bossy. Think about leadership. Think about Ms. Sandberg’s statement. Think about our views. Now, what do you think? We’d love to hear from you.