real courage of leadership

Of all the things I’ve ever shared over at the Your Courageous Life Facebook page, there’s one thing that has struck the biggest chord, and it happened in the past few weeks: a quote that I posted from Facebook SEO Sheryl Sandberg:

“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be told she has leadership skills, instead.”

As the shares for that particular post went into the ten-thousand rage, I was reminded of a pivotal experience that I had in fifth grade: We were put into small groups of five and each group was given a different configuration of Legos. These Legos came with lights that would snap onto the Legos. Our job? To decide what structure to build that would also make use of the lights.

By fifth grade, it had not escaped my attention that teachers usually grouped me with quiet people, the types who were slower to finish projects because they were looking around to see who would take charge. By contrast, I was opinionated, the kind of gal who could assess a project quickly and make a judgment about what needed to be done, next. By fifth grade, I’d already been labeled “bossy” and already carried some level of shame about that behavior.

To be fair? On some level, I hadn’t yet learned the social graces of being able to express myself in a way that didn’t steamroll over people in a way that was unkind. I never put people’s suggestions down or called them stupid, but I had a way of forcefully stating that we really should do it my way, and laying out five reasons why before someone else could protest.

But this experience changed that–because this time, Dana was also placed in my group.

Dana was also “bossy.” Dana was also someone who was opinionated. As the other three quiet kids in our group watched during the initial sessions of our group project, Dana and I sparred over every aspect of what should happen, came to agreements between ourselves, and then turned to the other three kids and said, “Do you agree?” like the little drill sergeants that we were. Afraid to make waves, they’d nod their heads yes and Dana and I would spar over the next aspect of the project.

I was oblivious, at first, the day that our teacher set all the groups to work and then came over specifically to our group. She turned to each group member and asked how we felt about each other in the group. They didn’t seem to be surprised to be asked such a strange question, which was my first clue that something was up.

Dana piped right up and laid it out there: I was bossy, she said, and the entire group didn’t like it. I don’t recall that the other three quiet kids had too many opinions about it, but when the teacher asked them directly if they agreed with Dana, they kind of shook their heads yes.

Smart enough at that point to have figured out that the group had had a discussion about me behind my back, and determined that I was the problem, I. Was. Mortified.

I didn’t know how anything had transpired. I didn’t know if the teacher had overheard me making a bossy remark at our last group meeting, or if Dana had approached the teacher. All I knew was that they walked in that day prepared for that discussion, and that I’d felt ambushed. Even worse, I was starting to cry in front of all of them, a double humiliation.

As I recall it, the teacher was empathetic to my tears. She let me excuse myself and go to the restroom. She asked that we all work together. And then, for the remaining week or so of the project, whenever it was time to get into small groups, I felt sick to my stomach.

How we Get Quiet


After that, I grew very, very quiet.

I was also horribly confused.

Dana was now issuing commands to the three quiet members of our group, as well as me. And girlfriend, I followed all of them. Every time one of our members started to put something in the wrong place and she said, “No! Not there!” in a commanding tone, I racked my brain trying to figure out why she could say that and the group didn’t mind, but if I said it, the group did mind.

Every time there was a group decision before us and she said, “We need to do _______,” I waited for the quieter members to nod yes before adding my yes, and I tried to figure out how what I had done was different than what she was doing, now.

I never figured it out. When the project ended, I was relieved beyond belief.

But in a way, the project didn’t “end.”

It didn’t “end” in the sense that I would spend the rest of my life in groups wondering what was different about me, than the other girls. I still watch in fascination as women in groups offer one another very direct feedback, sometimes even using the exact words that I’ve been criticized for using, and often find myself thinking, “If I said that, I suspect I’d be labeled a bitch. What’s the difference?”

Bossy vs. Opinionated.

I have figured out a few things about the real courage of leadership. One: there is a difference. I don’t know that there was a difference between myself and Dana all those years ago, but I can recognize that sometimes when I disagree with people, I really, really (really!) want to be right. I want my idea to dominate. It’s not that I’m mean. It’s that I get excited by what I believe in that moment is an answer or a solution, and my egoic arrogance gets in the way, too, and I really want recognition as someone who is smart and helpful in coming up with solutions.

While not healthy to get self-righteous and dominating, the motivations behind that behavior are actually very human. I choose to have compassion for them.

When it comes to group dynamics, however, that’s the tricky space–because no one, men or women, leader or supporter, likes feeling like someone else has to be right and someone else’s ideas must dominate.

Leadership is about inspiration, not domination.
(Click to tweet that:

I’ve also figured out, as well, that there’s a collective shame that many women have about the times when they’ve dared to speak up, to lean in, to take a risk, and then they’ve been shut down. In our society, we still confuse “bossy” with “opinionated.”

Sadly, most of my experiences of being labeled this way have not been dealt by “patriarchal men” who couldn’t handle a woman expressing an opinion. Most of my experiences have come at the hands of other women–groups of women, women who made collective decisions about me behind my back, without ever approaching me in-person with compassion and offering me an opportunity to explain myself or apologize for my behavior when I was wrong.

It’s not at the hands of those mean men, but from the mouths of women, that I’ve felt the fear that I should be quieter, less opinionated, or make sure that I “do it right” so that I can fit in.

Really, this is the new leadership that is needed. Speaking skills, or using more “I” statements and fewer qualifiers, or more inspirational magnets on the refrigerator to “dream big” are not what is needed for women to emerge as leaders.

What is needed is the courage for the very same women who share all of their tips and inspirational messages to, well…stop talking shit in groups, about other women. Stop social shaming. Stop casting one person as the odd woman out.

When a group determines that one woman is “bossy,” we need to stop labeling her and start talking to her.

If, after she’s been approached with the very same direct communication skills that leaders teach and there’s a very real and destructive hostility, then okay–sometimes, relationships aren’t a match. Sometimes, people’s behaviors are harmful to a group dynamic.

My point is this: true leadership encompasses room for people to receive feedback about their behavior, and be given an opportunity to change. Radio silence, shunning, gossip, put-downs, and the like are all acts of cowardice–the cowardice to not have the real conversation.

What that little girl wanted all those years ago was to have had an opportunity to have been heard. What she learned from that experience was that a decision had been made about who she was, that the majority ruled, and that what everyone wanted was for her to be submissive. Submissive was “nice.” Submissive was “you’ll be accepted in our group.”

I’m so grateful that something in my soul could never settle for submissive, and that there was a warrior within who, while she continues to sometimes let her ego get in the way, has also found the space to speak up, speak out, and lean in.