Should “Bossy” Be Banned?

The Girl Scouts and Lean In, among others, have started a “Ban Bossy” campaign. The underlying concept is that “bossy” is a negative term that is applied to young girls more than young boys, and discourages girls from showing leadership.

This is a complex issue — made more complex by the fact that girls apparently apply the term to other girls much more frequently than boys apply it to girls, or boys. I don’t remember using “bossy” when I was a kid. Young girls apparently use it because they try to play more cooperatively than young boys. “Bossy” girls aren’t viewed as sufficiently cooperative.

I don’t think the word itself is the problem. I don’t equate “bossiness” with leadership. Bossiness connotes more of a desire to control, an unnecessary and officious intermeddling with everything that is happening. Leadership, in contrast, is about making people trust your judgment and decision making and want to follow you. People who are bossy — whether they are male or female — tend to be irritants rather than leaders.

I’m all for encouraging girls to be leaders. God knows we need more capable leaders! I’ve worked for women throughout my career, and they typically have been terrific supervisors and team leaders. Like all good leaders, they know how to get people to work together effectively. Whether they were called “bossy” as kids or not, they developed leadership skills and characteristics.

The “Ban Bossy” campaign, however, risks confusing a word with a mindset. Let’s encourage girls to be leaders, but let’s not confuse them by suggesting that leadership is bossiness writ large. It isn’t.