You're Not the Boss of Me (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook who has made a second fortune with a bestselling book called “Lean In,” has gotten a lot of mileage out of this line: “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”

Google it. It’s everywhere. Sandberg has even joined up with the Girl Scouts on a campaign to “ban bossy” with its own BanBossy.com website.

Maybe it’s because God knew that He should only give me sons, but my first inclination was to declare Sandberg to be wrong. Being bossy — that is, demanding followership — is not the same as having leadership skills.

Then I saw the headline on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s front-page report on the first day’s witnesses in the trial of our former state treasurer: “Shoffner was fist-slammer, bossy, ex-workers testify.”

I wasn’t in the courtroom to hear all the testimony, but there’s no indication that the word bossy was ever actually uttered by any witness. For that matter, it wasn’t used by the (female) reporter, who almost certainly did not write the headline on her story. Some copy editor read the report and came up with a headline that reflected the facts and fit the allotted space.

Can you even imagine a male elected official being described as bossy, no matter how overbearing he might be? It’s hard enough to imagine the word being applied to a little boy. Maybe Sandberg is onto something.

It does seem to me that having leadership skills is one of those areas in which women still have to be better than men in order to be recognized, because men can still get away with demanding followership without immediately being written off as bossy. Just last week, our “On Leadership” columnist Barry Goldberg told of a business owner who described himself as the “[Expletive] in Chief” because “being a jerk gets their attention.”

Just as I can’t imagine a man being described as bossy, I can’t imagine a woman succeeding in business, or even in politics, with that management philosophy. Case in point: Martha Shoffner, according to trial testimony, was known to declare, “I’m the [expletive] state treasurer, and I can do what I want!” If she hadn’t alienated her staff, perhaps she would have been more receptive to their advice and warnings. Instead, all she succeeded in doing was turning her subordinates into crushing witnesses for the prosecution.

As Barry Goldberg said, a jerk can get work out of an employee, but not loyalty. Jerks get to do a lot of hiring because turnover is high.

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There is, at least in my personal lexicon, a difference between an executive and a manager, although the same person can certainly be both. An executive makes decisions on what an organization is going to do; a manager gets it done.

Making decisions is hard, as evidenced by all the people you encounter who can’t seem to make one. Making decisions that are also good ones is harder still. But it seems to me that even making good decisions is easier, requiring more data and less skill, than the holy grail of workplace skills: The ability to get work out of other people — quality work, done when and how it needs to be done, on a regular basis. That’s management.

The best managers I have worked for, male and female, were “bossier” — in the sense that they let me know what they wanted me to do — than the mediocre managers I’ve worked for. But they were generally pleasant, always fair and occasionally inspirational. I was proud to call them my boss.

The worst manager I ever worked for was an expletive in chief. He demanded followership. He got my attention. He even got work out of me — good work, in fact. But not for long.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.