The remarkable similarities between unhealthy masculinity and bad leadership

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 7 min read

What’s your favorite movie of all time?

Until recently, I had a number of movies vying for the title of “Jeff’s favorite movie.”

I wouldn’t fault you for thinking it’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I love that movie, it’s easily my second favorite movie of all time. Dead Poets Society made a huge impact on me at an important time in my life. Countless other movies have made it into the top 3, at various points of my life.

Recently, I came across a movie that resonated with me in every possible way. It was exciting, engaging, thought-provoking, and emotionally touching. Immediately after the closing credits started rolling after my first viewing, I knew it was my favorite movie of all time. The movie is called Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Whether or not you’ve seen it, we’re going to extract an important lesson from it. I’ll give you all of the context you need. However, I think we should start somewhere familiar…

Who are our Leaders and Heroes?

Quick! Think of a superhero.

Chances are, most of you reading this thought of one of the following: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron-Man, or possibly Wolverine. These are some of the most popular characters as well being some of the longest running publications.

When we think of Leaders, a similar phenomenon occurs — we often think of men, first.

In both of these cases, we have an unconscious bias that is largely a result of the availability heuristic (”rule of thumb”). The availability bias shows we are generally more likely to recall things that we see frequently or that stand out. In many cases, these biases can lead us to make incorrect conclusions as Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast and Slow.

However, in the case of gender in leadership and comics, the stats are clear, men overwhelmingly dominate. Most of the prominent and celebrated leadership positions we see on a regular basis are dominated by men, even when considering any recent progress for gender parity. The Fortune 500 has reached an all time high for women CEOs…at 44, or 8%. Meanwhile, comics continue to have a representation problem that goes back decades.

All of this is undergirded by the cultural norms handed down to us by the society we live in. While the sum-total of everything above is not the exact definition of the patriarchy, we are dancing in the same disco.

via GIPHY

The Leaders and Heroes we see

When we have such a strong support system for placing men at the apex of society and in leadership or idolized roles, we naturally begin to analyze their traits assuming that it must be something in their behavior or habits that explains their success rather than any structural advantages created through violent opposition to equity.

In a capitalist system, this means that we will find ourselves seeing success among those who are stoic or unfeeling, willing to be aggressive, willing to win at all costs in service of maximizing shareholder value. If you live in the US, you are also living in a country whose entire commonly shared history is a collection of stories that glorify war and conflict while glossing over the untold suffering caused by these conflicts. Is it any wonder that our leaders are influenced by a culture whose “real heroes” went into battle and whose fictional heroes are to be revered and modeled because they indulge our power fantasies of invulnerability and justified, righteous violence?

It is here that we find ourselves waist deep in the conversation about culturally accepted understandings of masculinity and femininity and its intersection with leadership success. To be clear, this is not a conversation about men, women, and non-binary folx as individuals, and more about the traits we assign as being masculine or feminine. This is why given the cultural acceptance and endorsement of certain “masculine” traits — born of conflict culture and the growth imperative of capitalism — we see a style of command and control leadership that is popular, not just with men, but with women and any other identity that wishes to succeed in our hyper-competitive environments. This is the approved method to “lean-in.”

And so, we get bad bosses. People — not just men — who want to win at all costs. People who dehumanize the people on their team and place their responsibility to a fictitious corporation above the human beings they employ or environments they occupy or pollute.

Stock goes up, they and their shareholders make money, and hence, in the eyes of “the market,” they are good leaders.

The Leaders and Heroes we need

Back to Everything Everywhere All at Once.

A few days ago, I stumbled across a video essay that breaks down one of the central aspects of why I love this movie so much. It has to do with the representation of a male character in the movie and how that character breaks many of the tropes we’ve become familiar with in action movies or about male characters. The protagonist’s husband is initially framed as a weakling, a beta-male…an undesireable man. It is only throughout the movie and mostly during the final act that we see that our perception of the character has been flawed the entire time.

During a particularly intense moment of the film, in the depths of surrealistic violence, Waymond pleads to all: “we have to be kind.” Far from the scene in the first Matrix where Neo coldly proclaiming that they need “guns, lots of guns,” Waymond plays a transformational role in the story by pleading for kindness.

The Leaders and Heroes we can become

One of the things I have always loved about Spider-Man is that he does not seek out the fight, he actively tries to avoid it. Spider-Man wants his opponents to put down their weapons, abandon their diabolical plans that could get people hurt. He wants to let them know that they “don’t need to do this.”

Robin Williams in Dead Poets asked his students to read poetry, to “suck the marrow out of life,” and to deeply feel their emotions.

After watching the video essay about Everything Everywhere All at Once, it occurred to me, that representations of healthy masculinity are something present in nearly every movie that has ever made its way to my top 5. While I am a sucker for superheroes, it is not their combat abilities or cool weaponry that does it for me, though I cannot deny that I enjoy that too. Instead, it is…

  • seeing their humanity and vulnerability
  • seeing their restraint
  • watching them care for those in their lives
  • the genuine desire to help people
  • the willingness to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good

The current expression of masculinity has poisoned leadership for too long.

The heroes and leaders we need are not here to teach us to squash our emotions and suffocate our excuses. They are not useful in helping us identify enemies and instructing us to fight our way out of any situation. The ones we need are not here to show us how to win at all costs.

We don’t need this many generals and captains.

The ones most of us need in our homes, or jobs, or our communities remind us to be kind, to care for one another, to be curious, to be vulnerable. The leaders we want to follow are not admired for their strength but more often by how they make us feel.

We need more people like Waymond. We need to be kind.

Becoming Superhuman
Becoming Superhuman
The remarkable similarities between unhealthy masculinity and bad leadership
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