This is a time of crisis for men at work and it’s largely due to an outdated and yes, toxic view of masculinity. According to the stereotypes that just won’t die, men are supposed to be powerful physically, intellectually, financially– all three if possible. Men fight the perpetual battle of gaining status, or at least keeping even with their peers. Vulnerability is something that should be banished or suppressed. This toxicity is called out in numerous studies, articles and books including Liz Plank’s For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity. And the media has attempted to confront it through such efforts as Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” ad campaign.
This bulked- up masculinity puts undue stress on men and it hurts their companies. In today’s organizations, technology, knowledge, and teamwork are the keys to success. This requires collaborative, inclusive, innovation- sparking leaders who build trust and engagement not individualistic, insensitive, command-and-control kinds of leaders.
In my research interviewing successful C-suite- level men who lead collaboratively, I’ve found that they are breaking through restricting male stereotypes. They are resisting pressure by their male peers to be dominating and competitive. They have stepped beyond the need to prove themselves. They bravely face emotion, their own and others. As a result, they create an environment where people feel confident and motivated to do their best work and their organizations thrive.
What allows these men to sidestep outdated and toxic stereotypes to collaboratively and successfully lead innovative companies? My research has revealed they possess a set of shared traits. Among them are Tempering Ego and Empathy.
A C-suite executive of a public transportation company I spoke with takes pride in the accomplishments of people reporting to him, more so than his own achievements. “I get a lot of satisfaction watching others rise to the occasion, knowing that my encouragement and leadership was a catalyst for that. I usually map out the road to a solution of a complicated problem– who needs to be involved, what message should the solution send, and how I can minimize who or what will get in the way.” Then he keeps this map in his back pocket, letting his direct reports run with their own plan, staying in the background to assist if necessary. He doesn’t feel a need to demonstrate his skills. In fact, pats on the back aren’t what feeds his ego. Rather, he said, “I get a big kick when the solution unfolds largely as I envisioned but as the result of a collaborative effort and not my preaching.”
The CEO of a biological services organization, thinks he differs from other male leaders he has worked with because he doesn’t shrink from “ wearing his emotions on his sleeve.” He said, “If I’m in a situation where somebody is going through something difficult, or we’re talking about a difficult topic, or we’re celebrating something, I tend to feel those emotions and don’t guard myself from expressing them.” He reflected on other men in his role, saying, “I think some leaders guard themselves because they feel like they need to be this pragmatic, all- knowing, non-vulnerable guy.”
He thinks his ability to emotionally connect ultimately impacts his organization’s bottom line. He talked about how his empathy creates a work environment where people can be themselves, leading them to work with more fervor. “At the end of the day, you’re asking people to do extraordinary things for you. They’re going to feel emotions while they’re doing that. And if you deny them the opportunity to be able to express those emotions or see those emotions in you, then I don’t think we reach our full potential.”
These traits of tempering ego and empathy can be viewed as stereotypical as well…for women, and thereby, unmanly when expressed by men. Collaborative executive men sidestep these views, unabashedly incorporating these traits as part of who they are as a man and as a leader. They promote a healthy work environment; and, as we are learning, they are more psychologically healthy individuals.