Leadership has become one of those buzzwords that educators and public figures throw about because it makes us think of what a modern education should teach. We should be able to lead, shouldn’t we? So why not teach it?
Unfortunately the problem is that most people apply the same broken logic of the learned-by-rote school system that wrought them, and tell us all that a leader does certain things, or has certain qualities. This is nonsense! All of us are capable of being leaders when we recognise what the means for us as individuals. There is no single best way to lead, it has to come from you directly. It is also a privilege to lead, not only a position of power but one of extreme responsibility for yourself and others. We don’t just need leaders, we need leaders who recognise their own unique contribution to the role of leader.
These past few months I have been putting together a course called Unapologetic Masculine Leadership, because I believe that our society has not only neglected, but actively disparaged men. As important as feminine leadership is, there is nothing positive to be gained by belittling men. We should be unapologetic as masculine leaders in the same way as women should be unapologetic about feminine leadership. They are both required in the modern world, and when one is attacked and the other is praised we all lose.
We need to show as much care and compassion for men as we do for women, and recognise the incredible gift we get in return when we encourage, empower and support men as role models for their communities. We do that by understanding what gives men purpose and helping them to pursue it.
A primary source for meaning and purpose in life for many men is taking responsibility for others. Whether it is as a father, a business owner and employer, or as a leader in a community or workplace, that desire to help others and to be recognised as an important and invaluable member of a community is a privilege and a joy to take part in. I think that we are craving leaders who are not cliché knockoffs of leaders that have come before, but those who can tap into their own talents and lead authentically.
As a teacher I have so many role models in the great teachers I look up to, and while I can learn so much from them, I cannot copy them. My favourite teacher in school was Mr. Jones, a Canadian teacher of philosophy and a wonderful and kind man. When we had lessons he would allow us space to explore difficult ideas and prepare materials that allowed us to discuss further than we ever would have if it were just surface level textbook stuff to pass the test. His teaching was a big part of the reason why I went on to study philosophy and eventually become a teacher myself. Despite my love of his teaching style and how much it benefited me as a young man, I cannot become him. To copy him would be a mistake, because I am not him. I have my own style, my own passions and skills, my own way with students in my classroom that they would miss out on if I in-authentically try to mimic my favourite teacher instead of becoming the teacher that I am meant to be.
I take what I can learn from his teaching and incorporate it into my own teaching style. What fits will help me do what I am uniquely capable of doing as a teacher, and what doesn’t fit would only drive a wedge between me and my students.
We all know what an authentic leader looks like. We all had a teacher at school who almost everyone in our class loved and respected precisely because they were just themselves, not pretending or trying to play a role. There is nothing more powerful in creating positive change in others than being powerfully and confidently yourself, because others are inspired to be authentically themselves when they witness others doing the same.
A bit part of the problem, though, is that we have overly prescribed what a “good” leader should be. There are so many books and speeches about what good leaders do, and much of that advice is atrocious because it takes an authentic individual leader and extrapolates their skills and talents to the rest of us.
If I go up on stage and try to speak with the magnitude of power in Martin Luther King’s amazing speeches, it would fall flat and I would look like a fool. I cannot speak with the gravity of such a great man, but the reality is that I don’t have to. I engage my students and audiences I speak to with smiles and questions and little jokes (I like puns… not very MLK). Some of my students really like my jokes and say I’m a funny teacher, and others roll their eyes, but all of them recognise that I am being who I am and not trying to talk to them in my “teacher voice” that I totally abandon when I leave the classroom. I talk to them in a similar way I talk to my friends and family, because this is my style. For this reason, I can connect with many of my students and empower them to be themselves.
Whether they are teachers, fathers, lawyers or soldiers, leaders are judged on how authentic they are, and therefore how honest and real. Don’t make the mistake of trying to emulate other leaders. Be yourself and incorporate leadership skills that resonate with who you are.
Confidence Comes From Taking Small Steps And Achieving Growth
One of the biggest failures of the past half century has been the over-emphasis in education and parenting on “self-esteem”. You can’t mentally trick someone into having self-esteem or confidence. You can’t tell them just to stand in a way that stimulates the brain’s serotonin receptors to jolt your brain into feeling good about yourself. Real self-esteem comes from persisting with a goal and not giving up until you achieve something you weren’t sure you could achieve. And real self-esteem is not talked about honestly.
Of course we want to feel good about ourselves, but we only get there by stacking up hurdles higher and higher, by proving to ourselves and others that we have value to give to the world, and by following through. Men in particular need to find their worth in achievement, but in the childhoods of so many there are memories of adults letting us give up if something was too hard and made us cry, participation trophies and fun and games instead of challenges that made us stretch and expand our capabilities.
We can’t change what we learned in childhood in an instant, or with some quick fix or by reading a self-help book. It takes time and challenging our assumptions and pushing ourselves to be better than we were yesterday, and it is real work, perhaps even the most real work we can ever do. Sometimes we have to be harsh to ourselves or go a little further than we would like. It’s okay to do work that you screwed up or regretted, because that will help you get to the next step, and the one after that.
Ray Dalio talked about challenging yourself in his book, Principles, and in this short video summarising the book he said:
“I’ve come to realise that success is not a matter of attaining one’s goals. I found that when I reached each new higher level of success, I rarely remained satisfied. The things we are striving for are just the bait. Struggling to get them forces us to evolve, and it is this struggle towards personal evolution with others… that is the reward.”
Where does this leave us as modern men?
The situation men find ourselves in leaves us with choices about who we want to be. Striving towards our next challenges, learning to love ourselves and who we could be, as well as building up and encouraging others in the unique way we are able to. This is what leaders do.
What is clearly true is that men are facing an unprecedented struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that shows less care for the difficulties that men are going through than it should. But we cannot wait for the world to change, because we would be waiting a long long time. We have to be the change we seek in the world, and one by one, little by little, community by community, we can recognise the power within us and within all of our brothers and sisters, and bring that power to bear.