“she was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar”
Driving through rush hour traffic, my thoughts were interrupted by Sheryl Sandberg, “Raise your hand if you’ve been called bossy,” she instructed her TED Talk radio listeners. ”Me! Me! Me!” I shouted, wildly waving my arm.
Sheryl’s command stirred up all kinds of memories from my bossy youth: the countless times I directed my cousins in our homemade productions of Grease; the occasions when I pointed out obvious —at least to me— inequities to my parents who were clearly as wrong as I was right; the wise guidance I provided my sister on matters ranging from wardrobe decisions to college selection. And for all of it, I was called bossy. The label didn’t particularly bother me. It was my job, was it not, as the oldest sister, cousin, daughter to guide and lead?
While I drove down memory lane, Sandberg continued the TED Talk, observing that it was only women in the live audience, including Sheryl herself, who’d raised their hands. Now, unless you’ve been on a planet far, far away, you already know that this is all part of Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban “bossy” from the lexicon. She sees it as an unfair label that discourages girls and women from taking the lead.
I get where she’s coming from. The last thing we women need is another bad B word that blocks our path to leadership. But is bossy really what’s blocking the path? Many girls get the loud and clear message that they need to shed any signs of bossyness before they grow up. These warnings don’t usually stem from the desire for these girls t0 become strong women leaders. Instead, the messages to bossy girls like me were more about the need to quiet brashness and blunt edges than they were about the intent of cultivating leadership skills. Letting go of bossy meant subverting strength, rather than transforming that strength into power.
According to the dictionary, things haven’t changed much. Bossy is synonymous with words that imply excessive force or tyranny: domineering, pushy, overbearing and imperious. What’s the alternative to words like these? Enter bossy’s meek antonym: submission. There you have it: Overbearing or submissive. Yuck. What a choice. Especially when you contrast insults that are typically aimed at men. Consider the term jerk, defined as someone who behaves in way that’s offensive to others. Its antonyms include shiny nouns like hero, Get that –the alternative to jerkiness is heroism while the opposite of bossy is dishrag.
But what if there were more to the bossy side of the coin than these lose–lose choices? What if bossy meant leadership of the best kind — smart, savvy, strategic, direct and far from tyrannical? What if instead of getting the message that bossy was another bad B word, girls and women embraced it as a badass B word? What if instead of being criticized, bossy people were respected for their gusto? What if instead of banning bossy, we blessed it? After all, which one do you pick: powerhouse or milquetoast? I choose powerhouse hands down for me, for my daughter and for all the girls and women I know.
“I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” said Beyoncé in an ad responding to Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign. It’s time for Beyoncé to get to be both: a bossy boss who is in charge, on top of things and in command. The time has come to invest our powerful zest in celebrating the successes of all the bossy bosses, including you, me, our daughters, our mothers, our sisters and Beyoncé, too.
It wouldn’t take much to make this happen — a mere shift in perception from offense to embrace. After all, women already own the word bossy. It’s been handed to us. Now all we have to do is claim it as our very own beloved B word. The next time someone calls you bossy, just say, “Yeah, that’s me.” Then keep on bossing in your badass, beautiful, brilliant way!