Leadership in Lowercase

KathyAfter the recent brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign, I looked over the website’s materials for girls, parents, and teachers. There’s a lot of good stuff there, urging girls to speak up about what’s important to them and giving adults strategies for helping them be heard.

I wouldn’t be sorry to see the word bossy fade away. I can see that fear of being called something negative could make some girls reluctant to speak up. But my bigger issue is with a word that’s all over the materials created by Sandberg and the Girl Scouts, who are co-sponsoring the campaign: Leadership.

I haven’t read Sandberg’s book Lean In, but I know she wants more women to hold positions of power in the corporate world. In the “Leadership Tips for Girls” handout on the Ban Bossy website, these numbers are front and center: Women make up just 19% of Congress, 17% of corporate boards, and 5% of Fortune 1,000 CEO positions. I don’t like those numbers any more than she does – I’d love to see women equally represented in government and business.

However. Not everyone wants to be that kind of leader. Obviously those big-ticket positions are not her only goal – there are many possible stepping stones or stopping points, so I’ll say this, too: Not everyone wants to be the director of a library division (a possible career trajectory for me if I hadn’t changed my path). Not everyone wants to be the head room parent for her daughter’s class.

A friend sent me this article from The Atlantic in response to Ban Bossy, which points out (again) that introverts can be excellent leaders, thank you very much. “[S]ome girls prefer to plot their world domination quietly,” notes Olga Khazan.

I agree with her that some tips in the handout for girls seem anti-quiet. #1, Speak Up in Class, with the added instruction of “Avoid editing what you want to say in your head” beforehand. Wha? Thanks for invalidating my entire thinking process.

Others, though, I really like. #7, Trust Your Inner Voice, recommends keeping a journal if you don’t want to share your thoughts out loud. Or #5, Don’t Do Everyone Else’s Work, which is essential for group projects at school but also a good reminder for parents who need to resist picking up everyone else’s dirty socks.

That’s where I think the emphasis on Leadership is missing the mark: these are not leadership tips, they’re life tips. The handout is full of techniques for being true to yourself and navigating relationships. Girls and boys should know this stuff. But I disagree that the logical next step after #3, Challenge Yourself, is Run Something.

Maybe you’d rather make jewelry, or research cures for cancer, or introduce kids to J. K. Rowling, or be the next J. K. Rowling.

Maybe you’d rather blog.

The handout notes that our society hasn’t quite figured out how powerful it wants girls to be. But there’s more than one way to be powerful, and I’m afraid some girls will read these materials and hear “Your way is wrong.” That’s not a message I want to send to my daughter, or to anyone else’s.

— Kathy

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