Is the Current Leadership Crisis a Crisis of Masculinity?
The Demise of the Heroic Leader
In Sleepwalkers, the fascinating history of the events that led Europe to war in 1914, historian Chris Clark asks an intriguing question: Was a crisis of masculinity an unconscious driving force behind the decisions that led to such a catastrophe? Clark observes that “invocations of fin-de-siècle manliness” were “ubiquitous” in the leaders’ rationalizations for their actions: the necessity of staying “stiff,” having “an unshakeable firmness of will,” seeing inaction as “self-castration,” and so forth. The pressure on elite patrician men was to embody a “harder and more abstinent” masculinity of “stamina, toughness, duty, and unstinting service.” This foundation of identity was inseparable from their motives as leaders. Not surprisingly, Clark’s question caused my ears to perk up. As someone interested in the intersection of gender and culture, I found his investigation intriguing—not just for understanding 1914 but for illuminating 2014. .
Clark doesn’t believe that Europe is sleepwalking into war now—with the exception of Vladimir Putin. Thinking of Putin, the image that pops into mind is the ubiquitous one where he is riding a horse, barechested. His projection of state power seems intimately connected to his hypermasculine heroic image. This may be a mere posture—a kind of dominant male primate display—but his Wild West swagger suggests the actions he intends to take as a leader. His isn’t the only masculine posture on the world stage—think Obama, Holland, Netanyahu, Assad, and the black-hooded figures of ISIS. There seems to be something happening at the intersection of leadership and masculinity today that may be as problematic and dangerous as was 1914. In fact, looking globally and locally, we appear to be in the midst of a crisis in leadership and a crisis in masculinity simultaneously.
The Hero as Leader
Western notions of masculinity, heroism, and leadership have been deeply entwined since before the time that Homer told the story of the Odyssey. This is so obvious that it seems almost silly to point it out. Despite our increasing use of the word “hero” more generically these days, the term actually only refers to men. The difficulty that women have with being accepted as leaders and the trouble that leaders have with changing the perceptions of what leadership is and what leaders should do spring from the deep and often unconscious equation between maleness, heroism, and leadership. This should be no surprise. There’s even a common term “heroic leadership” to describe the super-performing man at the top of a command and control structure. Western cultures have been and are male dominant, which doesn’t necessarily mean that men dominate—although that could be true, too—but it does mean that most often men have been and are the leaders. Therefore, what we value in men tends to describe our ideas of what it means to be a leader. But what exactly are we buying into when we equate masculinity, leadership, and heroism?
I’d like to start at the beginning, with perhaps the first hero legend of the Western canon, Homer’s Odyssey. Forging a path that would be metaphorically trod by countless other men, Odysseus leaves his family to go to war, but cannot come back until he outwits an extraordinary array of forces aligned against him—his worth as a man and hero cannot be forged at home. Odysseus is an individual, whose test of his heroism focuses only on his strength, intelligence, and cunning. In fact, he ends up losing all of his men in the journey back to his native city of Ithaca and, shortly after he arrives home, he kills most of the marriageable men there. Only through the intervention of Athena does Odysseus escape being punished. While ancient Greece operated by different morals and mores than the contemporary West, the value placed on the lone hero whose greatness is marked by his single-minded success or achievement of his goals, regardless of the consequences, has persisted into the present. The entrepreneur or trader who risks other people’s money and livelihoods, the hotdog sports star who doesn’t actually play well on a team, or the classic comic book superhero who works alone at the edge of the law have a resonance with the original Odysseus.
Freud saw another classical Greek hero’s tale as a metaphorical blueprint for masculine development: Oedipus. Oedipus was abandoned as an infant when an oracle told the king, his father, that the boy would grow up to usurp him. Saved from death by exposure, Oedipus grows up unaware of his parentage and eventually comes back to his homeland. As the oracle predicted, he does kill his father—neither man knowing who the other is—and marrying his mother. When all of this is discovered, Oedipus blinds himself in repentance and his mother/wife hangs herself. This tragic story, Freud suggested, was the founding myth of Western culture, because it points to the depth of attachment between mother and son that has to be overcome in order to create the separation between women’s world of Love and men’s world of Work. This division between Love and Work, which Freud saw as two distinct domains of human endeavor, is the basic plan of modern civilization. For Freud, the hero’s giving up of his love and longing for his mother was necessary not only for the development of autonomy and the separate sense of self, but also for the development of the public world of politics and capital. Similar to Odysseus, Oedipus’s story comes out of profound separation and the rupture of deep relationship.
The picture that emerges is deeply familiar. The leader and hero share the same origin. He is an individual, and his individuality isolates him and is also the source of his undistracted capacity to pursue his goals. Masculine identity comes out of our notions of the heroic leader who is agentic, directive, creative, risk-taking, dominant, and autonomous. While the development of the autonomous individual is one of the important contributions of Western culture as a whole, the downside is, and has always been, obvious. Even from the days of the Greeks, the hero’s Achilles heel was hubris, arrogance, and a disregard for others. Today, the negative impact of the heroic leader has become a major impetus to rethink what we mean by leadership. The position of the heroic leader, at the top of the command structure, makes collaboration and cooperation difficult. Among postmodern progressives, classically masculine leadership—which is often seen as aloof, calculating, aggressive, narrowly rational, and ultimately disconnected—is viewed as the cause of most of the ills on our precious planet.
The answer that seems to be most prevalent is to turn toward women—both as leaders and as the source of a more feminine approach to leading. With the greater complexity and interrelatedness of the problems we are facing, women’s historic commitment to human relationship seems to offer a new way to be a leader. Men, therefore, are being encouraged to use feminine, meaning relational, capacities as leaders. New leadership certainly needs to emerge from the whole of our humanity, both in terms of engaging more women and diverse men as well as in paying attention to more humane values. However, these challenges and changes to the historic equation of maleness and leadership are kicking up a backlash. Not only is masculine leadership being denigrated, but masculinity as well. The heroic leader embodies what has been the aspirational masculine identity for many men in the West: to live powerfully for a purpose, to strive to transcend limitations, and to be rewarded and loved for doing so. Pulling the rug out from under heroic masculinity leaves young men adrift to seek more extreme ways to define and demonstrate their manhood.
What’s Up with Young Men?
In response to the self-appointed “Sharia Police” in Wuppertal, Germany, Speigel ONLINE commentator Roland Nelles asked: “Young men, what is up with you?” [“Junge Männer, was ist los mit euch?”] His question was bigger than this particular incident. From the black hooded ISIS extremists with knives to the bombing of a children’s camp in Norway to the frequent school shootings in the US, the hands on the weapons belong to young men. Young men with guns, knives, and nothing to lose are reshaping the boundaries of nation states and the terrain of politics. Seismic changes in the last fifty years have left many men, particularly those from lower/working class families, too few options, struggling with who they are and what they should do. Certainly very very few young men are resorting to violence. However, other assessments, such as school performance or productive employment, suggest that more than a few men are struggling. Citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas notes that “The percentage of adult men not in the labor force — meaning neither employed nor temporarily out of work and collecting unemployment benefits — now lurks at 30.8 percent, the highest level ever recorded.” I hear the question “what’s up with young men?” as a recognition of a crisis amongst men.
It’s neither surprising, nor a sign of weakness, that men are struggling with issues about their identity as males. The world has gone through enormous changes since 1968. Women are more self-sufficient and no longer need men to bear and raise children. The loss of low skilled jobs that one can actually live on and an increase in jobs that have been traditionally “women’s work” leave many young men without a way of creating a positive traditional male identity. As the Art of Manliness blog puts it, the 3-Ps that have been the traditional foundation of male identity, Protect, Procreate, Provide, are no longer as necessary. In the 2010 Shell Jugendstudie, a study of youth in Germany, boys said that they want to work and have wives at home, while girls reported that they are no longer are interested in traditional homemaking roles. Without access to the family and the father role, which philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas saw as one of the most important drivers of social evolution, young men lose their connection to community life and to a positive aspect of being male.
David Courtwright, in Violent Land, explains that sociologists have noted across history and cultures that large numbers of young, single men correlate with violence and “social disorder.” Paradoxically, our societies have literally been built on the backs of these young men. They are the ones who died on our battlefields, suffocated in mines, fell from skyscrapers, and hacked through the jungles and across the prairies to find their fortunes. Most did not find much more than a short, rather brutal life. Social psychologist Ray Baumeister, in Is There Anything Good about Men?, explains that while men certainly dominate at the top of society, they also vastly outnumber women in “the worst outcomes society has to offer.” These young men take important risks, however, the cost is often an engagement with a level of disruption and violence that threatens them as well as others. Having families, and the responsibility for children, according to Courtwright, has been the key factor in bringing these men into a positive relationship with community life.
Lest anyone think I am urging men to assume their paternalistic, and patriarchal, role as the head of the family, I’m not. Not only are some men now resisting the responsibilities of that role, but the social constraints that supported men to stay with their families have loosened considerably. I am saying that this role has been a very historically significant and personally meaningful way that male identity has been shaped. And many men don’t have a ready alternative. According to Boys’ Day—Future Prospects for Boys, a 2013 report sponsored by the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend (State Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women, and Youth), most young men respect two rather archetypal masculine images: the man of power and the breadwinner. In a social reality in which too many young men see little opportunity to assume the breadwinner role, it’s not surprising that some men feel that they have little to lose and may end up embracing the “man of power” role in its most primitive form: domination.
The Threat of the Female
The Kurds have a battalion of female fighters who, apparently, are a particular threat to ISIS fighters. Why? Because if a jihadist is killed by a woman, he doesn’t go to heaven. Women are dangerous in most fundamentalist contexts because they have the power to pull men away from righteousness—or can even bar them from heaven’s rewards. In Islam, the burka and purdah keep men safe from the allure of women’s flesh. As David Brooks observed in The New York Times, in cultures where “spirit and the body are at war,” men tend to “oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses.” Notably, terabytes of porn were found on the computers in Osama bin-Laden’s lair. The war between spirit and body is being played out through domination: by oppression and enslavement of women and by decapitating and crucifying lesser men.
To be men means not being women. While this may seem to be self-evident and banal, I mean this in a particular way. Male identity usually is, or has been, created as an antithesis of the female and all she represents. Domination—or a sense of superiority– becomes an act of literal self defense. The ISIS jihadis are extremist but they are far from the only ones to be threatened by the female. You can see this in the rabid responses to Hillary Clinton, for example, or in the violent and degrading comments posted by men to women commentators on the internet or by the fact that calling a boy a “girl” may be the biggest insult. In a study reported by Michael Kimmel in 2000, pre-teen boys and girls were asked what they would do if they woke up the next day and were the opposite sex. Girls spoke about the new opportunities they would have while boys most often said they would kill themselves. This isn’t a rational response, and doesn’t even reflect the love that boys have for the women and girls in their lives. But it is a visceral response, an existential fear. The sense of opposition in the term “opposite sex” comes from males to females not usually the other way around.
Very recent research on boys’ development is beginning to explain how this happens. In cultures where only women nurture children and men are not present and part of the intimacy of daily life, boys end up in a confusing situation. At the tender toddler age, they begin to realize that, as boys, they are in a different category from their mothers. Who she is, they struggle to figure out with their preschool minds, is what I cannot be. Or else I, then, am not a boy, or won’t do “boy” in the right way. This precipitates a crisis. We can see this crisis in boys’ acting out, withdrawal, frenzied behaviour—much of what we feel is “natural” for boys. The preschooler mind is not very sophisticated, but their hearts are wide open: not being like mom means pulling away from the person who has been the entire world. In fact, Walter Ong observes that males tend to “code” the entire environment as female–engulfing, omnipresent, and something to push against. No wonder: boys go from mother’s home to a woman’s world of school. Surrounded, they escape outside, into superhero personas, to all-boy teams and games or into magical worlds within the hard, shiny surface of the computer. Without a nurturing and intimate relationship with a caring man or father, the human qualities and behaviours that boys deeply know in their mothers’ laps become off limits.
This is changing. More men are spending intimate time with their sons and more space is opening in culture for both males and females to express the full range of our humanity not just the half traditionally reserved for each gender. So many different factors contribute to a child’s gender identity—biology, parents, culture, schooling, friendships, mentorships, daily traumas and insults, as well as the big events that mark a life in unique ways. Boys hang on to their tenderness, often saving it for special people and moments. At adolescence, however, they are hit again with the pressure to conform to their culture’s codes and options for masculinity. As Niobe Way’s deft research in Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection shows so vividly, for many boys, this is a second crisis. This unconscious visceral response—the fear of being a girl—can drive young men, particularly those with narrow perspectives and few options, to extremes to prove they are not women. It’s a fear currently felt round the world.
Awakening from Sleepwalking
The wars and conflicts that have disrupted the dream of a world governed by the rule of law are challenging the capacity of progressive leaders to respond. Not simply out of the complexities of the situations, but also because different male identities seem to be at each other’s throats. Our crisis of leadership is also a crisis of masculinity—or masculinities. The different worldviews that leaders express are often grounded in different forms of gender identity. Too often, they don’t understand each other. When this lack of comprehension is compounded by the unconscious visceral need to protect one’s core identity through domination of all that is encoded as feminine, including weaker men, inferior races, blasphemous infidels, unruly Nature, or corrupting women, then our leaders are sleepwalkers.
As the world has grown closer, different worldviews and different masculinities rub against each other in the exercise of leadership. Needless to say, the medieval-minded jihadists who scoff at death in aiming for the utter destruction of infidels express a kind of rigid masculinity that always needs to be confirmed through domination. Putin, whose country is barely stable economically, postures as the invincible tribal warrior, taunting NATO’s impotence by violating another nation’s boundaries. Obama is in a tricky position: as a Black man, expressions of anger often trigger fear of the “dangerous Black man” in the white American imagination. His coolness and aloof cerebral manliness, based on rational rather than physical superiority, are often seen as inaction, arrogance, and weakness. In the US, the Right has kept up a steady but under-the-radar stream of commentary about Obama being homosexual. (According to similar sources, Hillary Clinton is also gay—probably based on the belief that she acts like a man. Angela Merkel’s “Mutti” [“Mom”] image may keep her safe from these strange projections.)
We also need to respond urgently to the crisis in masculinity that leaves too many males falling back into reactive and primitive forms of male identity. The German political scientist Peter Neumann believes that boys and young men become radical because they have no sense of what he calls the “Feeling of Being at Home.” How do we give them this sense of home so that they don’t feel themselves as enemies to their environment? Boys have a crying need for caring, intimate connections with men in early childhood. Intergenerational programming between fathers and grandfathers and boys, or providing “substitute” grandfathering, is one way to create spaces where this can happen. Also, the disproportionate effect on poorer men of the loss of industry and certain once-male occupations needs greater consideration. How can young men who have been marginalized find purpose and home? So much work needs to be done to brace against climate changes or to reinvigorate infrastructure. Public works projects that are not simply a handout but are valued society-building efforts could be a positive way to give poor and working class young men, and women, a new way to participate in building a future together.
The End of Heroic Leadership
Organizational pundits argue that the days of “heroic leadership” are numbered. No one person, in his armor on a mighty steed, can possibly hold all of the knowledge and nuance to respond to the shifting forces that most leaders must now manage. The command and control leadership of modernity with the heroic leader at the top was developed by men with the hope that they could control and impose order on—or, you could say, dominate—the messy, overwhelming environment to extract value. Modernity’s leaders in politics, science, and business raised the quality of life for many millions, but the technological interconnectedness that they gave rise to brings new complications. Action in one part of the system is felt in another.
The death of the heroic leader points to a shift away from leadership based in classical masculine tropes. Leaders like Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, despite their failures and shortcomings, often express a way of leading that is not caught up in masculine heroics. They, however, need to understand that many of their peers across the globe interpret their actions within a limited binary of dominant and subordinate, hero and vanquished, masculine and feminine. This perspective has to be a part of any calculus for action. Not necessarily to respond in kind, but to anticipate the likely response.
Heroic leadership is being shown the exit not simply because it is an old and increasingly problematic mode of male leadership. The systemic interactions in our organizations, communities, and world make it impossible to command and control our way forward. The capacities that we need to develop, as men and women, to lead empowered collectives are neither traditionally male nor female. They build on qualities of both genders: listening and taking bold action, intuition and analysis. And they call for new sensitivities for working together across differences that few men or women really have developed at this point. It will take us beyond a simple binary of feminine and masculine that ends up being so polarizing. Giving young men and women an aspirational identity toward leadership that brings forward the best of what humans, male and female, have expressed can mitigate against the dangerous defensive masculinity that is endangering the world. We have a chance in the way we speak about the new demands and practices of leadership to liberate leadership from a masculine bias both in terms of who leads and how.