How the #MeToo movement speaks to he-men

The era of the strongman needs the era of #MeToo and its emphasis on lifting the views of men about their identity.

AP Photo
Survivalist and television personality Bear Grylls, right, and actress Julianne Hough participate in AOL's BUILD Speaker Series in 2016 to discuss the television show, "Running Wild with Bear Grylls."

Of all the global trends today, two seem to be on opposite poles. One is the new feminist era of #MeToo, which aims to elevate women in ways that would prevent abuse by powerful men. The other is the era of the ultra-masculine strongman. These men are rulers like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela who preside over nominal democracies.

Such men may find inspiration from Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For nearly two decades, he has systematically undercut opponents and found scapegoats – such as perceived threats from the West – to justify his long-term rule. These leaders sometimes display a male physicality, epitomized by the iconic photo of a shirtless Mr. Putin.

With the appeal of strongmen on the rise in many nations, what could provide an alternative model of leadership? Might it be found in the #MeToo movement?

The answer to the latter question, of course, is yes. The #MeToo movement puts an emphasis on lifting the views of men about their identity to include the positive qualities of both the masculine and feminine. The best leaders of the modern era – and of either gender – can be both strong and nurturing, wise and cooperative, brave and consoling. In many companies, a popular concept of leadership entails “followership,” or an expertise in effective listening and consensus-building.

Men in particular should express a “relaxed masculine confidence,” as writer Richard Godwin puts it, that is not threatened by feminine qualities. For women, there are numerous female leaders who have displayed masculine qualities in difficult times. Britain’s “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, led her country through the Falklands War. Many women now run Fortune 500 corporations in traditional “male” industries.

Popular culture also can help one gender adopt the best traits of the other.

Bear Grylls, the popular host of reality TV shows such as “The Island” and “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” teaches contestants how to survive in the wilderness, an endeavor that could be seen as ultra-manly. But he rejects conventional views of manliness. When men arrive on his shows to test themselves, they “think it’s all about machismo and muscles, but it’s not,” Mr. Grylls told The Times of London. “I don’t think being macho is about banging your chest,” he adds. “It’s a much quieter thing. Being a man, hopefully, is showing those qualities of kindness, courage, and humility...” that actually yield better results for surviving in the wilderness.

Such higher views of masculinity can help shape leaders who reject the destructive era of the strongman’s false masculinity. The #MeToo movement is not just about ending sexual misconduct of powerful male leaders. It can also be about men and women redefining leadership itself.

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