On Being Bossy and Asking Provocative Questions

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I recently posted this comment on facebook:

When I was a child I was often told I was too bossy. I’m curious, male friends, did anyone ever tell you that you were too bossy when you were a kid or is this an accusation we generally save only for our girls? (PS. As a grown woman I no longer see being bossy as negative. I wish my sassy 6 year old self would have said, “Thanks for noticing! Being bossy is my super power!)

A respectful and insightful conversation ensued. I appreciated those who spoke up with their thoughts on this issue which served to crystallize a few things for me.

First, I was speaking of being a bossy child, not an adult. I believe children who are being bossy are exercising a budding strength, albeit poorly. They have opinions, they aren’t afraid to voice them, they have a desire to mobilize their peers to make things happen, and they know what they want. They have budding leadership skills which need to be honed and matured. They need to learn humility, the value of the opinions of others, and how to lead people kindly because obviously bossy adults can lose respect and effectiveness. So when I look back on my 6 year old self, I recognize my bossiness as a super power precisely because I was a girl gifted with budding leadership skills which I learned to wield more effectively as an adult and I truly believe these skills are some of my greatest strengths today.

Second, someone suggested that my question was loaded and, indeed, it was. I asked it because I truly believe female leaders face an extraordinary number of obstacles which their male counterparts never encounter, starting from a very young age. That even young boys and girls who exhibit the exact same behaviours are labeled differently. A couple of my male facebook friends said that they were called bossy as kids and a few parents mentioned that their sons are sometimes called bossy today. So even though I think it’s more common for us to use this term for girls, it’s clearly not exclusive. My male friends who answered this question affirmatively – I know you to be leaders today – I would follow up with this question: Did anyone ever prevent or discourage you from pursuing a leadership role because of your gender? I suspect not.

Third, parts of this conversation really emphasized that we all develop blind spots. We go through life in our own skin, gathering our own life experiences and we don’t often realize that we don’t see the same things our peers see. We own a GMC Terrain with killer blind spots on either side of the front windshield. I have had a couple of close encounters with pedestrians I literally did not know were in the crosswalk. Now I am very aware that I need to physically lean far forward and backward, checking for humans before making any turns to the left or right. I recognized my blind spots thanks to a couple of fearful and irate stares from nearly-flattened pedestrians. The thing is, if I had a passenger in the car, they would have a clear view of anyone blocked by my blind spot and they may gape in wonder at how I could miss the person in their clear view. They see something I absolutely don’t see.

In this facebook conversation, one of my male friends suggested that the conversation I started was not helpful and even divisive. He added that perhaps he doesn’t feel the struggle the same way. Indeed. He does not. Blind spot. He could never feel the struggle the same way because I’m sure his answer to the above question would indicate that he has never been prevented or discouraged from pursuing a leadership role because of his gender. He has never been shamed out of his leadership gifts. This is not something men experience or can fully understand. They have to trust the women beside them insisting there is something in the crosswalk that they didn’t even know was there.

Finally, suggesting that initiating a respectful conversation is divisive is something people with power say. People who have been oppressed, held down, or discriminated against often have no tool at their disposal besides conversation. Perhaps even provocative conversation. Those at the top of the global food chain can see provocative conversation as divisive because it seems to threaten a system that works for them or accuses them of holding the power, which they often don’t recognize. Blind spot.

I raised this question on facebook because I think the language we use with our kids matters and says a lot about our core beliefs. I am on a mission to empower, equip, and inspire girls to pursue their God-given gifts and their best lives and I believe this starts by considering what we say to them when they are young. I long for us to foster leadership skills in our bossy girls and call them forth into the greatness God designed them for.

I give thanks for the courageous women of previous generations who raised provocative questions and for the courageous men who truly listened to them and helped make good and powerful changes. We have not reached the finish line, so I will follow in their footsteps and continue to ask loaded questions.

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