What is leadership?

The other day a friend shared this meme on Facebook: it reads “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher I know many years ago when I told her that my old school (the abusive one) had appointed the ‘dominant’ boys (i.e. bullies) in three successive year groups, including mine, as prefects and she told me that some aspects of ‘bullying’ behaviour could be interpreted as ‘leadership’. In both cases it could easily be the kind of ‘leadership’ nobody needs to have inflicted on them.

There is a common belief nowadays that ‘bossy’ is a term that is only ever used to describe girls and it is used to “knock down” girls who are forthright, who know their own minds, who have ideas of their own. Things may have changed since I was at school 30 years ago but I remember it being used to describe any child who had a tendency to tell others what to do when they had no right, as well as someone who may have been in a position of authority but dictated rather than listened or who told people what they thought was what without necessarily knowing what they were talking about. Anybody who has been to school will have encountered teachers who shouted for no good reason and who thought that listening was something others did when they spoke, and the majority of teachers at primary level are women. If the term is more commonly used of girls, it may be because boys are less likely to do it unless they can back up their demands with the threat of violence, and therefore words like ‘thug’ or ‘bully’ are more likely to come into play. Bossiness in a girl is thus seen more as an annoyance than a threat.

The issue of bossiness versus leadership carries on into the workplace, but in the context of school, it is the duty of teachers to make sure that dominant or domineering pupils do not ‘shine’ at the expense of others. Having ideas and being forthright with them is not a bad thing, but those who do not have the confidence might have ideas just as good and should be allowed a chance to make them known and have them discussed, and being forthright or more assertive than someone else does not always mean one might be the best leader. A leader is not just someone who is good at making others do what they want; they are people who inspire, who bring people together, who bring out the best in others. A liking for being in charge, for telling others what to do, is not necessarily a sign that someone is equipped to be a leader because they may not have all the other skills necessary. Perhaps it might be useful to teach them these things, but others should be as well, as they might need them in adult life, not least as a parent.

At worst, interpreting bossiness (or worse, bullying) as “leadership skills” absolves teachers of the responsibility to combat unjust power structures and hierarchies among the children and young people they have charge of. It harnesses existing hierarchies for the teachers’ own convenience. Those at the top of the pile sometimes need to be taken down a peg or two for the good of everyone. If a child is not at the top of the pile or forthright with their opinions, it is not their duty to act as a prop for the development of a bigger or louder child’s ‘leadership’ potential, especially one who has harmed them, and they should not be expected to. It’s disturbing to see feminists claiming that a negative personality trait, a behaviour that causes aggravation to others, is something to celebrate and potentially reward with authority over others, when it could just be a sign that someone is a bully.

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