It's Never Too Late to Learn to Lead -- Without Being 'Bossy'

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says that little girls should never be called "bossy." I disagree. Being called "bossy" has helped me become a better leader -- and a better human being as well.
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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says that little girls should never be called "bossy." I disagree. I have been called "bossy" several times in my life -- the word "pushy" has been used a couple times -- and someone even told me I was "abrasive" once. In each instance, I gained valuable information and insight. I learned about myself -- and I learned about the other person, too. If I'm interested in having top-notch interpersonal skills and relating well to others, it's essential to get their feedback... the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly. Being called "bossy" has helped me become a better leader -- and a better human being as well.

I'll never forget my first leadership lesson. I was in third grade and our class had been assigned a group project. All of us eight-year-olds were busy trying -- chaotically and noisily -- to accomplish our task. I was a smart little girl who quickly figured out that we'd accomplish our goal more effectively if we organized ourselves into task teams, rather than everyone just jumping in willy-nilly. I assessed the situation, developed a plan, and started to tell my classmates what to do. Most of them ignored me. Several said, "Leave me alone. I'm doing what I want." One turned to me and snapped, "You're not the boss of me!"

I fell silent. I wasn't hurt -- just frustrated. I knew I had a good idea and that if others would just do what I said, we could complete our project in no time -- and it would be a good one, too! But I was stumped. I didn't know how to influence my peers to get them to do what I wanted them to do. I didn't know how to communicate in such a way as to show them that my idea was the way to go. In short, I didn't know how to lead.

Leadership lesson #1: Being bossy and simply telling others what to do is not good leadership.

It doesn't work... it just annoys people.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was engaged in one of the most important tasks of childhood: learning to play well with others. It is within our family that we encounter our first authority figures and learn lessons about how to influence them to get what we need and want. In the classroom and on the playground, we learn more valuable lessons -- about making friends, handling conflict, negotiating and finding our place in the social pecking order of youngsters. In our neighborhoods, places of worship and other places where groups of kids spend time together, we continue to hone our social skills, develop emotional intelligence and explore issues of influence, status, power, respect and popularity. We watch and learn from one another. We try new behaviors; we step on each other's toes; we bump up against competing needs and wants; we experience hurt feelings -- as well as happiness and joy. Through it all, we are receiving continuous feedback -- both positive and negative -- on how we are perceived by others.

All this learning is just the beginning of what for most of us is a lifetime of honing social skills, testing our ability to influence others, finding out what works (and what doesn't) in getting what we want in life. Psychologists have a term for this learning; they call it "mastering your environment." It is an essential task -- one that establishes the behavioral foundation upon which much of our future happiness, success, fulfillment and well-being is built.

It is in these early years that we learn our first leadership skills. We express ideas and attempt to get our friends to join us in an activity or adventure. We want to help a friend, so we offer advice. When conflict arises, we might attempt peacemaking. And when we want to do something that requires others' involvement, we do our best to enroll them in helping us. In short, we do things we think will win friends and influence people.

Since that fist leadership lesson, I've learned many more -- by trial and error, by watching other girls (and boys), and by reading and taking classes. I'm a smart woman with a high desire for achievement, so learning how to be an effective leader has been a key factor in my career success -- not to mention my personal fulfillment and happiness. Here are a few additional lessons:

Leadership Lesson #2: People enjoy working with others who make them feel good about themselves.

A little recognition, acknowledgment and appreciation go a long way in making people enjoy working with you. A pat on the back, a heart-felt "atta-girl," a smile and a "thank you" lets others know that they're appreciated. As Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Corollary Leadership Lesson #2.2: People do not like to work with others who make them feel bad about themselves.

Constant criticism and fault-finding will make people not want to work with you. A steady diet of only negative feedback discourages people -- it makes them feel like nothing they ever do is good enough. Leaders who always criticize and never compliment are misguided in their attempts to motivate improvement.

Leadership Lesson #3: People do things for their reasons, not your reasons.

A leader's job is to get things done through others, and in order to do so you have to understand their motivation. Just because something is important to you doesn't mean it's important to the people you're trying to lead. Find out what motivates them -- you can then create the opportunities for them to get what they want while helping you to get what you want. The vision, the goal, the future you seek to create must be big enough, inclusive enough, that others can see themselves in it, too. If you can do that in a compelling way, you'll gain their support, commitment and enthusiastic participation. They will want to be a part of the great things you're up to in the world.

Leadership Lesson #4: Gender plays a role in determining effective leadership behavior.

Gender roles and expectations are deeply ingrained in every culture on the planet. Like it or not, they're a fact of life. Ignore them to your peril.

In my early career, I worked for two male-dominated organizations -- a large metropolitan newspaper and a prestigious private university. These work environments gave me an opportunity to watch female supervisors, managers and executives in action. I recall having lunch with a few girlfriends and we'd talk about the women around us. We'd categorize their leadership styles and marvel at how different they were from one another: the Cheerleader, the Queen Bee, the Girl Next Door, Big Mom, the Nerdy Girl, the Seductress, the Tomboy, Daddy's Little Princess, the Steel Magnolia, among others. These women were all successful, but each had chosen their own style of climbing the ladder of success. Some of their styles I liked -- others made me cringe -- but I learned from all of them.

Leadership Lesson #5: Any strength, when it's overdone, becomes a weakness.

The challenge is figuring out where that line is -- where confidence turns into arrogance, where providing direction turns into bossiness, where selling becomes smarmy, where enrollment becomes exploitation. It takes time, insight, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and a degree of maturity to learn from critical comments, rather than automatically defend against them, or simply write off the other person as a jerk.

Leadership guru Ken Blanchard said, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." Without feedback -- both positive and negative -- we inhibit our growth as leaders.

The most successful leaders are those who know how to use their position power without overdoing it (being pushy, overbearing or dictatorial) and how to use their personal power without overdoing that either (people-pleasing, ass-kissing, or obsequiousness).

The five leadership lessons I've outlined here aren't the only ones that girls (and boys) need to learn if they aspire to great things in life. There are many additional lessons to learn while growing up -- but these five are a good start.

If you didn't learn these lessons when you were growing up, don't despair. Nobody learns everything they need to as kids. We learn leadership lessons whenever and wherever we find the opportunity. Start now -- start where you are. If you didn't have good role models in childhood, look around and find them now. If no one gave you helpful feedback and coaching on how to play well with others, seek that feedback from people you admire and respect today. If you've alienated people in the past with your poor interpersonal skills, make amends and learn from your mistakes. See if you can rebuild a few of the bridges you may have burned. If you want to be a leader but you don't know how, find people to teach you. There are plenty of great resources available -- workshops and seminars, books and self-study programs, mentors and coaches.

Learning to lead is a continuous process. What you didn't learn as a girl, you can learn as a woman. It's never too late to become the leader you might have been.


BJ Gallagher is a sociologist, workplace expert and author of 30 books. Her newest is It's Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been (Viva Editions; 2nd edition, 2014)

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