Not All Good Leaders Are Bossy

Let's not forget the quiet power of introverts in our quest to boost female leaders.
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Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Recently in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Girls Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez expounded why they think there aren’t more women in leadership roles. Girls, they theorize, are afraid of being seen as an adjective that summons an image of a pouting, tyrannical grade-schooler, crossing her arms and stomping her feet: “bossy.”

The two women base their opposition to the label on a 2008 Girl Scouts survey that found that girls are more worried about being seen as bossy than boys are.

Sandberg and Chavez point to real problems when it comes to women in leadership roles: “Women make up just 19 percent of the U.S. Congress, 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 10 percent of heads of state,” they write.

The solution, they claim, is to eradicate the word “bossy” from our vocabularies, since it’s disproportionately applied to girls and may have a chilling effect on their ambitions.

The organizational outgrowth of Sandberg’s recent book, LeanIn.org, along with the Girl Scouts, launched an entire site dedicated to “Banning Bossy.”

The cause might be noble, but many of the group’s recommendations for parents, teachers, and other adults don’t have anything to do with bossiness:

“Avoid excessive praise of girls who are ‘well behaved.’ Rewarding them for being quiet may inadvertently encourage similar behavior when speaking up is needed, like during class discussion,” the group advises teachers. Or, “Assure students that there’s no right answer.”

neil-5110/Flickr

Parents, meanwhile, are urged to help their kids express to their friends what they want to do on weekends. They’re advised to “avoid hedging or softening your opinions” in front of their daughters and to “brainstorm examples of moments when being ‘bossy’ is a good idea.” They should remind girls not to turn factual sentences into questions (“Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader?”).

The question cadence—it’s called “uptalk”—might be annoying, but it’s an increasingly widespread among both genders of young people, bossy and otherwise.

Most of the other things aren’t necessarily markers of girls who are afraid to be “bossy”they’re markers of introverts.

Of course it’s good to encourage girls to be leaders. But not all leaders have extroverted personalities. In fact, some of the best ones are quiet, shy loners who were likely never called “bossy” in their lives.

The anti-bossy movement aims to encourage girls to speak up "even if you aren't sure about the answer," but introverts prefer to process their thoughts and form solid ideas before expressing them.

Studies on introverted leaders have shown that they are not any less effective than their more gregarious counterparts, and some studies have even shown that humbler leaders can inspire better-functioning management teams. Charismatic CEOs get paid more, but their firms don't perform any better on average than those of more reserved principals.

Introverts have a harder time getting high-powered jobs, since these spots usually require extensive self-promotion. “I don’t have the time to figure out who has achieved what," one manager told writer Jennifer B. Kahnweiler. "I give opportunities to those who tell me what they are doing without my having to ask.”

To make matters worse, introverted women are at an even greater disadvantage: while introverted male leaders might be looked at as a strong, silent type, introverted women might simply be overlooked.

But that's an argument for pushing workplaces and educational institutions to better recognize the talents of introverts —not to pressure girls or boys or anyone to simply act in a more extroverted way.

Once they’re in place, introverts can actually be more functional than extroverted bosses if the employees are all extroverts, too. (A meeting led by extroverts and staffed by extroverts can often feel more like a Chuck-e-Cheese’s birthday party than a meaningful exchange of ideas.)

Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama have all been at various points described as introverts. Male or female, many kids go their entire lives without ever being called “bossy,” and they become bosses. Really good ones!

Of course, shyness can be a sign of social anxiety, and if that’s the root problem, it can be good to help kids overcome it. But while “bossiness” in children can sometimes be a leadership trait, it can also be a marker of bullying or aggression—something few parents would likely want to encourage. Promoting all forms of “bossiness” among kids might also mean trampling the desires of the meek.

We should be doing everything we can to ensure leadership positions are available to women. But in the process let’s not forget that some girls prefer to plot their world domination quietly.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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