Ban ‘bossy’? Parents need to teach children real leadership principles

Marines at Officer Candidate School learn real leadership values. (Photo by U.S. Marines)

HONOLULU, March 11, 2014 – These days, everyone in America wants to be in charge. It’s been said “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and in recent years as economic scarcity has dwindled opportunities, being “assertive” and taking charge of things before others can is often conflated with leadership.

The problem with leadership based purely on assertiveness is that it implicitly assumes that a social hierarchy should exist based on the principle of might makes right: i.e., the stronger the personality, the more legitimate their right to be in charge is.

If Child A on the school playground sees Child B playing with a ball and immediately says “Let me borrow your ball, my friends and I would like to use it” the sheer act of acquiring compliance from Child B to lend the ball isn’t evidence of leadership potential, it’s simply being bossy. Real leadership is based on authority, authority is derived from legal, moral or spiritual precedent and command is the proper exercise of leadership.

Anyone can inject their willpower into a situation or a group of people, but that doesn’t make them leaders, nor does it mean they possess the character to effectively lead people. Someone who gives bad orders and acquires compliance from others without properly possessing the wisdom, character or discernment to lead only leads others into disaster. If a child constantly receives positive reinforcement from acquiring compliance from others, that child may grow up to value the rights and personhood of others as less than their own.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

America is already rife with ladder climbers who feel others are expendable to the supremacy of their personal financial or political aspirations. The banking crisis of 2007-2008 is a perfect example of assertive people pushing their agenda on large populations and profiting at the expense of many. Maybe getting rich quick by selling bad assets could be called sales “leadership” but the ultimate result was global disaster.

What is needed more than anything else for future generations of Americans is a profound sense of social responsibility, service before self, self-discipline and humility. These values develop character which in turn creates legitimacy for command.

If a person is used to getting everything they want, everything becomes expendable to that person. People who are used to leading but never serving will not understand key command principles that include legal authority, human morale, protection of property or stewardship of resources. Under crisis or emergency situations, the bossy person’s priorities tend to be self-centered whereas a true commander can be trusted to know the right thing and act decisively.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the modern nuclear Navy and one of America’s toughest military leaders, famously characterized his selection of reactor candidates in the following manner: “They all have excellent resumes … So what I’m trying to find out is how they will behave under pressure. Will they lie, or bluff, or panic, or wilt? Or will they continue to function with some modicum of competence and integrity?”

Instead of Child A being rewarded for using verbal compliance tactics on the playground, that child should be taught the levels of authority at his or her school: one, the playground is the property of the school, therefore all actions are subject to the rules of the school; two, all persons on the playground are under the supervision of the principal and the teachers or monitors under them; and three, if the ball being used by Child B is that child’s property, supreme authority over that ball belongs to Child B.

A child with command leadership potential would say, “Would you like to play ball with us? We don’t have a ball, but would be honored if you’d join us and let us play with your ball.”  That approach shows potential because the child has offered inclusion into a social partnership, respected property ownership of the ball and acted in a manner that fosters morale. Compliance gained through assertiveness is nothing more than acting under color of authority. We rightly call that being bossy. Real command is an honor that is earned and respected, not usurped.

Perhaps the greatest leadership lesson for our modern times can be found in the Bible’s story of Luke 14:8-11 when Jesus said, “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There was a time in America when character was the wellspring of developing command, which is perfected leadership. Instead of banning the word ‘bossy’ maybe Americans should ban acting with a sense of entitlement.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from
  • Wheeler

    Someone once said that leadership is the ability to let someone else have your way through sheer force of something called ‘command presence’. Command presence, like respect, can never be demanded. Command presence is something you either have or do not have. Command presence comes from the ability to lead others. You do not ‘manage people’. You ‘manage’ things but you lead people. At the end of the day, the outstanding ‘Leader’ is someone who is so good at what they do, that their subordinates look at themselves and say, “Look what we have done”, and never know their senior exists. An outstanding ‘Leader’ gives ‘kudos’ to their subordinates and does NOT seek accolades for themselves. An outstanding ‘Leader’, EARNS respect from their subordinates, a respect that is freely given by those subordinates. The outstanding ‘Leader’ will always take care of their subordinates first, before either eating, sleeping, or taking personal time off. The outstanding ‘Leader’ will always strive, to the best of their ability to be the first to arrive and the last to leave the command.

    THAT is leadership!

    Semper Fidelis

    USMC Retired

    • DannydeGracia2

      I agree! Leadership by example is the best kind. Thanks for commenting and thank you for your service!

  • AWCheney

    This is ridiculous! They are doing exactly what the schools have been doing for well over a decade…they refuse to differentiate assertiveness from aggression! AGGRESSION gives you bullies; ASSERTIVENESS gives you leaders! Perhaps this was written by someone too young to know better because zero tolerance taught him to either be a wimp or a bully…and not a leader!

    • DannydeGracia2

      So are you saying someone should be able to exercise authority simply because they think they should be in charge?

  • walleye

    Well said.

  • Persuasive

    Just a few minutes prior to reading this article I was moved to read Luke 11: 29-32, and continued on toward the end which is 37. People like the gentleman below who see the article as “ridiculous” are blinded to the deeper significance of what is being written. I enjoyed this very much.

    • DannydeGracia2

      Thank you for sharing that verse. Jeremiah 5:5 comes to my mind also …

  • AnsonZ

    “bossy” has nothing to do with leadership. It has perhaps to do with “authority” which also has nothing to do with leadership. “bossy authority” pushes while leadership attracts. There is some legitimate “bossiness” as in a Marine Drill Sergeant building responsive discipline in recruits. But don’t we have better things to do than waste time on micro PC interpretations. Maybe we should just take off “bossy’s” protective coverings and say that person is a pain-in-the-ass.

  • Top

    In my 23 years in the army I found that I didn’t need to be aggressive or assertive in order to accomplish the mission. What worked best for me was taking care of my subordinate’s needs. I informed them of the mission and then made sure they had the tools to carry out the mission, including making sure they received their benefits and that their families were cared for. They knew I cared about them as soldiers, as individuals and part of my team. They took care of me by accomplishing the mission.
    First Sergeant Retired

    • DannydeGracia2

      Glad to hear that, sir! And thank you for your service!

  • justshootmenow

    I enjoy everything you write Danny but I have to admit this entire fixation with the word ‘bossy’ leaves me zzzzzzzz.

    Bossy!?! Bossy was our house cow when I was growing up. A light colored Jersey who’s one horn curved out, adopted any orphaned calf but wasn’t above trying to steal calves from their mothers and got along fine with everyone. She thought she was a dog.

    This fixation with words du jour always makes me think some people have too much time on their hands. Were they to ask me or their own mothers I’m sure we’d find plenty to occupy them in a more productive manner. Does that make me bossy?


    • DannydeGracia2

      Hmm. I think many people have this confused on all sides of the issue. One side wants to ban the word “bossy” and never have it spoken, replaced instead with the word “leader.” Another side wants to be openly bossy and flaunt it in people’s face saying, “I’m bossy, deal with it, I’m better than you because my voice is louder, that makes me stronger.” I’m advocating that real leadership is more than just being pushy and having an intense desire to dominate people.

      • justshootmenow

        …er, I’m not sure what I wrote to trigger that response but I’ll tell you that historically the word ‘bossy’ was usually saved for mothers, who wanted something done that her spouse or kids didn’t want to do, or for older sisters. Everyone ‘knows’ there is no one more bossy than an older sister. It’s a burden because she’s that way for her siblings betterment not “an intense desire to dominate people”.