03/21/2014 01:57 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

No One Has Ever Called Me Bossy

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Ban Bossy campaign last week, I was reminded of the work of kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley.

In 1993, Paley published a book called You Can't Say You Can't Play. The book outlined Paley's observations of the moral dimensions of the classroom from her experience as an educator. She noticed every class had a social order comprised of an "in crowd" and "outcasts." Paley called the children who controlled the social order "the bosses." The bosses had achieved enough social power to decide which kids would be included and excluded.

Over the years, Paley witnessed the pain and humiliation young children caught up in power plays caused in her classroom. As a result, she decided to legislate fairness. She created a new rule that addressed the hurtful behavior. The rule simply stated, "You can't say, you can't play."

Despite many tears and tantrums, Paley succeeded in teaching her students to use their power benevolently and how to cope with those who didn't.

Fast-forward two decades.

Sandberg has now joined forces with the Girls Scouts to encourage leadership amongst girls by outlawing the word "bossy." I thought back to Paley's groundbreaking work with children. The campaign seemed like a blind reversal of Paley's hard-won insights. Was it now suddenly OK to say, "You can't play?"

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sandberg delivers a humble brag when she complains about being called "bossy" when she was a little girl. In the same breath, Sandberg admits her younger brother and sister got some laughs at her wedding when they introduced themselves as her first employees.

Wait a second. Isn't treating family members like subordinates the very definition of bossy?

But Sandberg believes today girls are afraid to assert themselves for fear of being labeled bossy and the social stigma that surrounds it. While this may be true, it's a little difficult to take Sandberg's recall on the word seriously. Apparently, the label hasn't held her back.

Jennifer Garner, Condeleeza Rice and Diane Von Fursternberg help form a chorus to Sandberg's new Ban Bossy theme song in the PSA for the campaign. Each woman asks us to eliminate the term from our vocabulary. The video ends with Beyoncé, hands on hips, claiming, "She's not bossy. She's the boss."


My first reaction to the campaign was disbelief. Wasn't banning a word from the common vernacular a pretty bossy thing to do? I'm all for encouraging more girls to become leaders. But in my mind, the Ban Bossy campaign is focused on the wrong people for the wrong reasons. The slogan is catchy, but confusing. It could easily be misinterpreted by already assertive girls as a license to be mean or controlling.

The campaign seems like a shallow answer to the much deeper question of how we define power, success and leadership along gender lines. We live in a society where confidence and assertiveness are often valued over substance. As the mother of two young girls, I've heard dozens of parents on the playground call their own daughters "bossy" as if it were a badge of honor. And frankly, I'm not all that worried about those so-called bossy girls. My hunch is that they're going to do just fine.

I'm much more concerned about the girls that don't even show up on the radar. The ones that are being corralled around by others on the playground or are sitting alone at the lunch table or those that never even make it to class, much less raise their hand in it.

Would these girls benefit from having more women in positions of leadership? Maybe. It all depends on what kind of leaders we become.

Like Paley, I believe the mark of a true leader involves figuring out ways to give others "a full share of the sun that is rightly theirs." To Paley, the key to equality and empowerment meant teaching "the bosses" to possess enough confidence and self-restraint to allow the best in others to surface and be celebrated. Good leaders inspire excellence through their vision, competence, and compassion for others.

Banning the word bossy, in and of itself, will not create good leadership. But it has succeeded in starting an important conversation about why so few women and girls are stepping up, leaning in, or aiming for the top of the heap.