Opinion || Bossiness not to be mistaken for leadership

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, is attributed with the quote “I want every little girl who someone says ‘they’re bossy’ to be told instead, ‘you have leadership skills.’” 

I’ve seen t-shirts, framed pictures, and memes espousing this sentiment all over the internet and women in leadership positions sharing the concept (if not the direct quote) across their networks.

But we all seem to be overlooking one crucial fact: that being bossy doesn’t actually make you a great leader. In fact, bossiness is the antitheses of leadership.

The dictionary definition of “bossy” is someone who gives people orders, is domineering and who wants things done his or her own way. They don’t listen to other people, they don’t invite contribution or input from others and they don’t care about what others think because they know what is best and they know the best way to achieve it.

My almost four-year-old daughter is bossy at times. She will dig her heels in and demand things done for her the way she wants them done and in a timeframe that suits her best, regardless of what anyone else is doing at the time.

She will scream at the top of her lungs if she doesn’t get her way immediately when she is in a bossy mood and she seems to almost thrive on being as difficult as possible to try and get her way.

In the midst of one of these episodes, I can honestly say that I have never looked at this thigh-high dictator and thought, “awww you are going to make an excellent leader one day with this attitude!”

Every toddler and pre-schooler has mastered the art of bossiness. It’s called pushing boundaries to learn where you stand in the world in comparison to those around you.

However, once we reach adulthood, we are meant to know where the boundaries lie, how authority structures work and how to engage effectively with others without being domineering.

Leadership is a vastly different skill than bossiness. While bossy managers tell you what to do and how to do it, a leader will invite your feedback and teach you how to trust yourself, make decisions with a safety net and encourage your development.

A bossy manager will test you, a leader will push you to be better. A bossy manager seeks to control, a leader seeks to coach.

A company’s greatest assets are its people. How they treat their people will play a large part in how successful their company is.

While bossy managers tell you what to do and how to do it, a leader will invite your feedback and teach you how to trust yourself, make decisions with a safety net and encourage your development.

Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” 

Bossiness serves no purpose other than to big-note your own sense of self-importance, whether you are four years old or 54 years old.

The business world is often characterised as still being a “man’s space” and the familiar tropes of aggression and even arrogance in management leads to women assuming that in order to be successful in this sphere, we need to emulate this traditional stereotype.

However, we mustn’t misunderstand our desire for equal standing, for a need to assume outdated management clichés.

The key, according to Dr Adam Grant is respect. If you have earned the respect of those whom you lead, then telling someone what to do feels less bossy to them.

However, if a person who has not taken the time to build rapport and earn the respect of those around them tries to strong arm others into doing their bidding, they are less likely to receive a warm welcome and more likely to be painted as a domineering bossy boots.

You have to begin by earning status through genuinely connecting with those around you and contributing through proving your competence, before you attempt to assert your authority.

At the end of the day, as leaders, we can recognise the value of others and encourage them to continue growing, or we can feel threatened by the skills of others and seek to control them.

Teaching both our girls and our boys what leadership actually means and how to recognise the contribution of others will breed a future led by infinite possibility.

Zoë Wundenberg Careers Writer, Counsellor & Coach Impressability www.impressability.com.au