May 31, 2019

From Man of Steel to Man of Teal: A new vision for male leadership

For a long time, many men in leadership positions have tried to be like Superman. Or at least Superman in his save-the-day mode: strong, confident, virtually invincible. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Superman’s tagline gets at how guys have typically aimed to grow revenue at a breakneck pace, accumulate power and perform amazing feats. 

But in the flatter, faster, fairness-focused world that’s taking shape today, we need a new model for how men lead in organizations.

One that moves from being a man of steel to becoming a “man of teal.”

What does that hue of green-blue have to do with leadership, masculinity, and the future of business?

What is Teal Leadership?

Teal leadership is associated with a theory of cultural and organizational evolution developed by authors like Frederic Laloux. The key features of teal consciousness include a deep-seated trust in the way life unfolds, a taming of the ego, a preference for connection over competition, and an understanding of the interdependence of all living beings.

The teal leadership mindset may sound “soft.” It may sound anything but “manly.” But the evidence suggests it is much better suited to the society and business world that’s emerging. And that becoming men of teal will allow men to be much more effective—and happier.

When men try to be Superman, they can fall into the trap of negative features of traditional masculinity. Traits like stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression.

As the American Psychological Association pointed out recently, traditional masculinity tends to be unhealthy. It contributes to problems in the personal sphere like depression, suicide, and violence. It also fuels the “toxic masculinity” that has tainted our wider society. It is the core behind the mistreatment of women. It contributes to an unwillingness to recognize the climate crisis. Given the way traditional views of manhood prize independence and see relying on others as weakness, many men seem unable to look critically at our interconnected world and economy.

A traditional male leadership approach also runs counter to what’s called for in organizations today. Collaboration and persuasion are proving to be far more productive than displays of dominance. Plus, the accelerating pace of business makes old-school chains of command too slow to keep up with decentralized networks of trusted, connected colleagues. And the data shows vulnerability and empathy are more effective than ruthlessness, phony claims of strength, and emotional unavailability.

The key to success at one of the most successful companies in the 21st century—Google—turns out to be “psychological safety.” Caring, rather than scaring, produces the best result today.

I discovered as much in my work at Great Place to Work, the research and analytics firm behind the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. For the 2018 book I co-authored, A Great Place to Work For All, we studied 10,000 managers and found that the most effective leaders on indicators of productivity, agility, and employee retention had qualities more like the Buddha than a barking boss or an Atlas-like executive seeking to carry the company on his back. The top-performing “For All Leaders” were purpose-focused, fostered connections among their team, and humbly let others take the spotlight.

More recently, my colleagues and I have studied effective innovation. We learned that the organizations racing ahead in terms of inventions and agility—including computer chip maker Nvidia and grocery chain Wegmans—act more like a flock of birds or school of fish than a rigid pyramid of management layers with a boss at the top.

What these studies and other evidence points to is that a teal masculinity is the future. And that traditional masculinity no longer works well at work–or beyond.

A new vision for masculine leadership

Many men realize this. A widespread sense that the way we’ve been taught to be men isn’t working can be seen in a 2018 survey by analytics site FiveThirtyEight. Its poll of 1,600 U.S. men in the wake of the #MeToo movement found 60% of men agreed that society puts pressure on men  in a way that is unhealthy or bad. The younger a man was, the more likely he was to believe that.

We need alternative, positive role models. And they’re emerging. You see them in the sports world. Take Steve Kerr, head coach of the super-successful Golden State Warriors basketball team—which is playing in its fifth consecutive championship series this year. Kerr has introduced a set of team values that runs counter to the narrative of dominating or bullying opponents. “Competitiveness” is one of Kerr’s four principles, but the other three are “joy,” “compassion,” and “mindfulness.”

Teal male leaders also are surfacing. Think of executives like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, whose company has spent millions closing pay gaps between men and women and who rejects the view that business is just about growing revenue and profits.

“The business of business is not business. The business of business is improving the state of the world,” Benioff says.

In other words, we need to move away from trying to be men of steel—from being rigid and cold in a world calling for flexibility and warmth. Still, I don’t want to throw Superman under a bus full of kryptonite.

After all, Superman captures teal leadership qualities pretty well. He’s about helping others rather than enriching himself. He has an introspective, soulful side, which brings him to his Fortress of Solitude. He has an everyman aspect through his Clark Kent alter-ego and a collaborative streak seen in his participation in the Justice League.

In my own quest to become a man of teal, I’ve got some superfriends. One is Ed Adams, a psychologist and men’s group leader with whom I’m writing a book on positive manhood. Others are members of the Teal Organization, a group of colleagues keen on taking organizations to the next level of human consciousness.

Ed Frauenheim is co-author three books on organizational culture and innovation, including A Great Place to Work For All.


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