From Loser to For All Leader
How the smallest management career in history (mine) might be the beginning of a big trend.
In some ways, you shouldn’t listen to a word I say about how men should show up at work.
I have what is probably the smallest management career in history.
I’ve managed one person, for one day, in my entire professional life. The day I was assigned to be this woman’s boss was the day she told me she was leaving for a new job elsewhere.
I don’t think she was fleeing me — we’d never even worked together! But this paltry history of leadership is telling nonetheless.
I’m 53 years old — in my prime, a time I’m supposed to be close to the apex of my field. But the highest position I’ve ever risen to was “senior director” of content. I’ve never earned the title of vice president, the rank many guys define as the career mark to hit or exceed. At the half-dozen companies I’ve worked for, I never made it up to “the room where it happens.”
Nor have I achieved other measures of success in my chosen field — writing. No Pulitzer prizes on my resume. No New York Times bestsellers. And with a few exceptions, I haven’t cracked the A-list of major publications with my shorter-form articles.
These shortcomings are especially glaring given my privileges in life. I grew up as a straight, white, able-bodied, middle class man in America. I went to great public schools outside of Buffalo, New York. I got into and graduated from Princeton University, then earned a master’s degree from UC Berkeley.
In light of my advantages — especially my elite education — you might think I should have risen higher up the corporate ladder by now.
In fact, right around my 50th birthday, my Uncle Mike put a fine point on this lack of progress.
“You’re a promotion or two behind schedule, Ed,” he told me.
Thanks a lot, Uncle Mike. Ouch.
To be fair to Uncle Mike, he was genuinely trying to help me in that conversation. And he was only speaking the truth about how I was faring under the conventional rules of the career game.
The humiliation I felt in that moment had to do with those rules. And with the related rules of manhood. You are supposed to win as a guy. To dominate, really. To provide for your family, but beyond that, to conquer the work world.
True, in many ways I’d made good progress in my life. I earned a middle-class salary. I’d co-written a couple of books. I was happily married with two great kids. Part of why I hadn’t climbed higher in the corporate world is that I’d left a fast-lane journalism job for one that allowed me to be a more involved dad. I coached my kids’ soccer teams for eight straight years, for example.
Still, according to the conventional yardsticks for a man at work, I was a loser. At least I often felt that way. I feared I was someone who’d choked in the game of business. Blown my chances.
But there’s a different way to look at my life’s work. And how I’ve shown up as a man at work.
What have I been “losing,” after all? The rat race.
A work paradigm that causes a lot of stress and suffering. Where people have been steered to show up as less than fully human.
But, in large part because younger people, women and people of color are resisting the worst aspects of the work world, it is changing. The rat race is looking more and more human. And less and less like a race.
It turns out some of the values I have held dear, and some of the traits I have as a man, are starting to become valuable. I’m a sensitive guy. A “nice” guy. Someone drawn to collaboration as much or more than competition. Less alpha male than emo man. A communicator more than a commander. More interested in being an equal partner than a powerful boss.
Now, my wife, my kids and many of my colleagues will tell you I’m far from perfect.
But the soft skills I’ve long practiced are increasingly success skills. And more generally a reinvention of masculinity at work is needed. For men as individuals, for those around men, and for our organizations.
It seems that I may not have been behind schedule after all. I, and guys like me, may have been ahead of our time. And we may have something to offer all men seeking to contribute and succeed in the business world that’s unfolding.
Masculine success has historically been about pay, promotions and power. It’s gone hand-in-hand with exclusion. It’s been about climbing over others in the rat race and up an ever-narrower corporate ladder.
These are features of what my co-author Ed Adams and I call “confined masculinity” in our recent book, Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection. Confined Masculinity is our term for the conventional, traditional masculinity that tends to limit men to the roles of protector, provider and conqueror. This version of masculinity also generally shuns emotional expression, signs of vulnerability and any admission of depending on others.
But this confined masculine ethos in general, and its definition of success in particular, are outdated. They are unhealthy. And even dangerous — to individual men, to people around them, to our organizations and to our planet.
Our book explores these many levels. But let’s home in on men in organizations — on men’s success and their ability to foster inclusive, effective organizations in the work world that’s emerging.
What does that world look like?
It is faster, flatter and fairness-focused.
What do I mean by faster? Change and disruption, from all over the globe, is happening at a quicker pace.
That means that top-down chains of command are proving to be too slow in a quicker, more complex commercial arena.
Partly as a result, organizations are getting “flatter.” With fewer levels of management, and greater power given to individuals to sense and respond quickly to changes in customer demands.
Another reason businesses are getting flatter is that young people especially are demanding to have more of a say in their work lives. Having been educated in more participatory, group-learning settings, they expect a measure of control over their work.
In other words, the confined masculinity style of bosses giving directions will have to give way to providing overall direction.
Indeed, the best results today are coming not from heroic leaders but from effective teams. Work today is becoming a team sport. The most innovative discoveries and most nimble operations require breaking down silos in organizations and bringing together people with diverse perspectives and talents.
This means collaboration and persuasion are more productive than solo displays of dominance.
The key to successful teams at one of the most successful companies in the twenty-first century — Google — turns out to be “psychological safety.” Caring, rather than scaring, produces the best results today.
More and more leading organizations today are seeking vulnerability, empathy, and listening skills in leaders and front-line employees alike.
An inclusive spirit and inclusion skills also are becoming a requirement in the wake of the #metoo movement and the racial reckoning over the past year.
In the 21st century, a successful career necessitates sensitivity around working with people of different backgrounds — and awareness of one’s own privileges and biases. Even though men and women have been expected to treat each other fairly and with respect for decades, those expectations have intensified.
The new approach to success at work is captured by the concept of the “For All” leader. My colleagues and I at research and advisory firm Great Place to Work came up with this term in the course of studying 10,000 managers and 75,000 employees. We discovered that the most effective, inclusive leaders — whom we dubbed “For All Leaders” — had traits such as humility, the ability to build bonds of trust with and among team members, and a focus on a bigger purpose rather than immediate results.
This is a far cry from the kind of combativeness, bravado, and stoicism that confined masculinity calls for. Confined men are often stiff, cold, and isolated in a work world now calling for flexibility, warmth, and connection.
More and more, men trying to follow the rules of confined masculinity in the emerging workplace are finding they don’t fit in.
Many are limping along. Some are being let go.
We all know some of the cautionary tales from the #metoo era and the racial justice uprising in recent years. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Travis Kalanick of Uber. Iowa Congressman Steve King.
There are concerns that this has gone too far, into a “cancel culture” that limits speech and imperils men, especially straight white men.
In any event, the rules have changed. And the change is asking more of men in particular.
It’s not enough for men to simply turn on the charm and pretend to be compassionate and connected. Performative caring that’s a tool for personal promotion won’t cut it. Selfish smarm will be sniffed out.
Instead, today’s call is about revisiting deep assumptions about success. Can our definition of achievement widen to include not just winning and individual accomplishment, but progress and purpose? Can it shift from a fundamentally exclusive version of success — where we triumph only by besting others — to an inclusive success? Where we advance at the same time that we lift up others?
I think we can redefine success along these lines. And there are more and more stories of men and their organizations thriving by breaking out of a confined masculinity and an ego-driven, exclusive version of success.
You see this in the business world. Our book tells the story of my friend Travis Marsh, who evolved from a self-absorbed, dictatorial management approach (he admits to having been a “world-class asshole”) to a more collaborative, self-aware leadership style — and saw better results on his team.
Even the Business Roundtable, a bastion of capitalism led mostly by men, recently acknowledged that all stakeholders — not just shareholders — matter.
You also see shifting definitions of success and masculinity in the sports world.
Consider Steph Curry, one of today’s basketball stars, and a centerpiece of the three championships won in recent years by the Golden State Warriors. Curry put his pride aside when the team acquired Kevin Durant — another superstar that enabled the team to win consecutive championships.
“If you win MVP or I win MVP, it doesn’t matter,” Curry told Durant in a text. “We’re trying to win championships. And if you do win, I’ll be in the front row clapping for you at the press conference.”
Superstars and teams of old were more driven by chips on shoulders, by ego and anger. Michael Jordon wore a scowl just like the one on the Chicago Bulls logo. But more and more, the leading teams of today are about smiles and laughter. They are about the giddy shoulder shimmies of Steph Curry.
In fact, the pleasure of connection, of an inclusive spirit, goes hand in hand with positive results in sports today. The liberation, the release of playing loose with close-knit teammates, leads to success. As one sports writer said about the Warriors: “Joy is a weapon, an essential aspect of winning. Their fun is your demise.”
As for me?
I’m still plagued at times by doubts about my progress. Even though I left traditional employment for the life of an independent professional in January, I still wonder if I shouldn’t have “toughed it out” to rise higher in the ranks.
But for the most part I’m more satisfied than ever. I’ve redefined success. I’m not trying to win the rat race. I’m seeing myself on collective missions with like-minded colleagues, including the Teal Team I co-founded to advocate for more conscious, soulful organizations. My source of self-worth is shifting from passing others on the career ladder to service and purpose — to leaving behind a better world.
You might say I’m about inclusive success.
I was honored, for example, when Uncle Mike asked me to help some colleagues with a book recently. He — and they — recognized my skills. And it was deeply satisfying to give them some useful guidance.
It was a kind of leadership. An informal, unspoken kind.
I’ve also heard words spoken about leadership and me. I heard them from a younger woman I’ve worked closely with on several research reports, and whom I helped with her TED Talk. She surprised me by calling me a For All leader in a public talk last year.
She made my career with that comment.
It turns out you don’t need to manage people to be a leader. You don’t need to climb the ladder to experience success. The smallest management career in history, in other words, might be the beginning of a big trend.
It could be part of the reinvention of masculinity at work. Where the competitive rat race is replaced by collaborative, compelling missions. Where we redefine success itself in a wider, inclusive way.
Where all our voices count. Even the words of a guy who once defined himself as a loser.