Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is an outstanding advocate for women’s workplace equality. In her best selling book, Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead, Sheryl provides daunting statistics that show women aren’t getting what they deserve in today’s workplace. One of the reasons women don’t get what they deserve, according to Sandberg, is that they’re taught at a young age to sublimate themselves if they’re naturally assertive. Sheryl makes an interesting point that young girls who are assertive are called bossy; and correctly notes that there isn’t a comparable term for an assertive boy. Sheryl’s definition of a bossy girl is one who is confident and assertive; She never condones overly aggressive, domineering behavior that could be a kin to bullying. No one should misinterpret Sheryl’s point, there’s a huge difference between being “bossy” and being a bona fide bully. It’s the strong, assertive girls who are unabashed to stand up for themselves and for others that should be referred to as the next generation of corporate executives rather than be called “bossy”.

When Sheryl says that the “bossy” girls should be referred to as “the next generation’s corporate executives” one can assume she means that these girls aren’t bullying their peers but are confidently asserting themselves in socially appropriate ways when they want something. Assertiveness is a positive trait and girls who are assertive should be applauded. While there is a stigma against girls being too strong, one needs to be careful not to encourage girls or boys to cross that line and go from assertive to offensive and callous, or from confident into arrogance .

Boys who are overly aggressive and bully others need to be disciplined and taught socially appropriate ways for asserting themselves. The same standard should be held for girls; When bossy girls trip over the line and become bullies, their behavior needs to be nipped in the bud. Any overly aggressive kid who behaves in a tyrannical way, regardless of gender, needs to be admonished and trained to use their natural assertiveness in an acceptable way. If dominant kids are taught at an early age other ways of expressing their strong personalities, they could become successful and esteemed leaders!

Any parent who has raised kids beyond middle school will know that there are typically three groups of kids: those who are bullied, those who are the bullies, and those who observes. If you’ve had a kid whose been bullied it will be easier for you to sympathize with the following logic. For one, bossiness like any character trait, is not all bad but it depends when and how it’s used that makes it good or bad. For instance, a person who has a desire to use knives and cut flesh can be a surgeon, a butcher or an ax murderer! The affinity for cutting flesh and the character trait that’s associated with cutting (typically of someone who is fearless of blood and assertive) is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s all how this desire is channeled. A person can save lives or cause a life to be lost all based on how his character traits and desires are developed and utilized. The challenge is to help a person turn their aggressive behavior into assertive behavior.

It’s worth taking a closer look at what’s behind the bossy behavior to discern what’s driving the person to behave that way. If a child is bossy (or overly demonstrative) they may be a person who enjoys taking charge and thinks they can do things better than others. They may come across as clever, popular and even charismatic. Taking initiative and insisting on being in charge could be either a really good thing or a bad thing; It will depend on the tone, affect, intent and level of empathy the person shows when seeking to run things.

Some of the best leaders are typically those who don’t need to dominate others, they may have the best ideas, seek feedback from their subordinates, put others needs before their own and in fact are self-proclaimed introverts! Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Bill Gates, Emma Watson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Moses are known for their humility and/or their introverted leadership style and they’re known to be some of our most powerful influencers. (See: Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Rather Than Big for examples of C.E.O’s who achieve tremendous success by adopting a management strategy of empowering their employees and Give and Take for an approach to achieve success through being a certain type of giver.)

If a child has been bossed on a continual basis at home, he might mimic this behavior with his/her peers. He might not know another way of relating to his peers or to getting his/her way. This learned behavior could be considered a default behavior merely passed down to him and not a choice. This bossy child might inflict pain on others without even realizing it. So with the help of a strong, astute, intellectually honest parent or a good counselor this child could be taught to be more empathetic and in time this child could develop into a great leader. Alternatively, when parents deny their child’s “bossy” behavior it could lead to destructive behavior.

Girls can be equally if not more cruel than boys (often bullying manifests in insidious ways through cruel gossip and selective exclusion of peers from the social circle). I’d hate to see some of those bossy girls (as well as the overly aggressive boys) run our companies without having first instilled in them some real leadership skills and empathy coaching.

How can parents foster leadership in a child who exhibits bossy behavior?

When a parent recognizes his child is a bossy type and tries to instill empathy in their child, it could lead to grooming her to become a respected and effective leader. A bossy personality style that’s harnessed and redirected to the side of something good can lead a person to become a strong influencer in a group; the same character trait (confidence and assertiveness) might be used for good things. Taking charge, telling others what to do and influencing a group to follow you and help you achieve a goal can be achieved in a nice way and this person may then develop the reputation for being a leader, influencer and one who inspire action. These are clearly positive character traits: not every “bossy” person is a bully and not every bully loves taking charge of things, and some people who like to take charge are able to foster the good-will of others along the way and use their strength to make a positive difference.

How to transform “Bossy, Aggressive, Overbearing, Manipulative” kids into effective adult leaders?

1. Start teaching them at a young age that you value and admire empathetic leaders

2. Catch them using their assertiveness in a good way and reward that behavior

3. Make it clear that you do NOT approve of domineering or bullying (no tolerance for aggressiveness that’s self-aggrandizing or hurtful)

Can bullies be trained to become superstar leaders?

The bullying phenomena has exploded to epidemic proportions and it could be minimized if there was more focus on not simply cutting out the bullying but in training bullies to be the leaders in their schools. Perhaps even the protectors of burgeoning bullies in their midst. If the bullies were called out and privately told they could be in charge but in a different way; identifying bullying, using their social status/influence to stop other bullies, and get attention for that as the elite group of watch guards and defenders of justice… who knows, maybe they would stop their negative behavior and become real leaders. They could use their assertiveness to make their environment safer, happier and more desirable for everyone.

Since bossy kids are often doing their damage in insidious ways, they are often left undiscovered and not found culpable for their actions. The atmosphere in schools across the country are dour for many kids who are submitted to daily abuse by their bullying peers. The bullies who don’t get the proper parenting and coaching early on never develop proper boundaries with others over time may justify their insensitive behavior faulting others as being too weak! Bossiness alone isn’t a clear indicator of a future effective leader. In fact, these people might not have developed the sensibilities that it takes to develop healthy relationships with peers and subordinates.

Surprisingly, many great leaders and great executives aren’t the most dominant. Instead, these great leaders and executives show tremendous insight, concern and empathy for their employees, suppliers and customers. They know how to delegate, seek feedback from their subordinates, help others succeed and value greatness rather than being on top. They recognize when they need to be assertive and when they can let others take charge. Bossy girls and overly aggressive boys have potential to positively influence their peers and become great leaders. In order for them to reach their full potential to excel as leaders, the bossy types will need to integrate empathy and healthy boundaries in their dealings with others.