Get in Touch With Your Inner Bossiness

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., reacts during a demonstration at the DreamForce Conference in San
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., reacts during a demonstration at the DreamForce Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Inc. introduced an overhauled version of its mobile software, seeking to ensure clients and partners will be able to use more features of the company's sales, marketing and customer service software. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Midlife, for many women, is a time to get in touch with our inner strengths. The more experience we get in the worlds of work, family and the community, the more our self-image gains in confidence and clarity. However, it's not always easy to embrace the image of the self-confident midlife woman. We still carry in our heads the negative connotations attached to various "B" words such as "bossy" and the other B-word that rhymes with witch.

Recently, Sheryl Sandberg launched the "Ban Bossy" campaign to help girls and women develop their leadership skills by ridding themselves of the B-word mental shackles. This movement is more than empty rhetoric. Sound psychological research supports her assertion that we can build leadership skills in women by counteracting the social stereotypes they start to incorporate at an early age.

Part of the message we need to send to girls is that being a good leader doesn't mean you even have to be bossy in the traditional sense. In 2008, UCLA psychologist Michael Hoyt and Arizona State psychologist Clara Kennedy tested a leadership training program on a small group of public high school teen girls living in New York City. Prior to the intervention, the teenagers believed that it was in fact bad to be a leader, because it meant you had to dominate others. The intervention consisted of a 6-week curriculum that provided rigorous coursework, mentoring, and programs in which they designed and led their own activism programs in the community.

Hoyt and Kennedy's approach of combining didactic and experiential learning helped the teen girls broaden their definition of leadership to one that is inclusive and cooperative. The girls began to see how they could become change agents in their own communities, and in this way improve the conditions around them in their own environments as well as strengthen their own abilities to inspire and motivate others.

Educators from around the world are, similarly, developing leadership training programs for young girls (e.g. Archard, 2013; Beaman et al., 2012; and Posner, et al., 2009). Sandberg is partnering with the Girls Scouts, which seems like a natural alliance and, indeed several studies on leadership development were with Girl Scout troops from around the U.S. (e.g. Benjamin, 2006; Butler, 2008: and Connolly, 2010). All of these programs help young girls embrace the concept of being leaders by teaching them that leadership can be a positive social quality. Once girls reshape their image of leadership, they are then able to integrate this into their own personal sense of identity.

We who are in midlife are in a position to help the girls we know develop their leadership identities through mentoring. University of Virginia educator Angela Henneberger and her collaborators conducted an experimental study in which 7th graders were mentored by college students through a series of social activities, homework assignments, and discussions about motivation. Typically, over the course of a year, girls at this vulnerable age of the transition to adolescence show a decline in key indicators of mental health including self-esteem. The mentored girls showed no such decline.

Sandberg's campaign, to the extent it takes advantage of these empirical studies, may go a long way to helping young women define themselves in new and more fulfilling ways. By spreading this message along with providing hand-on mentorship, we can serve as positive role models while, at the same time, providing valuable concrete help and support. In the process we can help them, and ourselves, ban all those "B" words and accept the "L" word, becoming strong and confident leaders.


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