An Invitation to Straight White Male Leaders: Decide What it Means to be a Good and Connective Man


For many men, what it means to be a man is defined in contrast to women: “Women are emotional, I’m analytical.” “Women are relational, I’m action oriented.” “Women are collaborative, I’m decisive.” If we’re straight, we may think of our sexual orientation as ‘not gay’. If we are white, we may filter that as ‘not being black’.

But being a man is more than the absence or antithesis of the feminine, being straight needs to mean more than ‘not being gay’, and it’s a mistake to distill being white down to ‘not being of another race’. Limiting our identity formation in these ways can confine us to stereotyped thinking and compromised results.

To become a better leader, you may find it useful to define your masculinity specifically and positively. That helps us take personal responsibility for acting as men of honesty and integrity.

How do men define men? Here are typical descriptors generated by men in our firm’s training courses over the years. When asked to generally describe men, these learners say that men:

  • work long and hard to protect and provide for their families
  • care about giving and receiving respect
  • solve problems well
  • can get so caught up in work and achievement that they lose sight of their relationships
  • teach their children and others about courage and risk taking
  • like to learn how to make things work
  • build trust by making and keeping promises
  • enjoy food, sports, sex, and laughing (not necessarily in that order)
  • find change stressful
  • are shaped by their physical, mental, and spiritual health
  • may feel threatened by people who are “different.”

Granted, the phrases above also describe many women, and not all men. And the list does not emphasize all-too-common caricatures of men (greedy, emotionally stunted, clueless), because we are already fed that demeaning diet. Before its demise, Washington Mutual ran a series of ads skewering a herd of stodgy white male bankers; WaMu’s investment in inclusion should have produced a higher rate of return.

Here’s the point: you need to define your own masculinity, and then live and lead as the man you want to be. Women in your life may tell you what to think, how to be, who to be. (I’m not sure why they do this; they seem to feel we need a lot of help.) Advertisers, pundits, and filmmakers often portray masculinity with a negative twist. You need to understand on your own terms what it means to be a good and connective man. You are the boss of you, and only you can generate your own clear purposes as a man.

A Personal Take

My personal take on being and leading as a “real man” involves two key practices: integrity and intimacyIntegrity is the congruence between who I want to be and how I act, it’s about making and keeping promises to build trust, giving and receiving respect, leading with courage and following with honor, getting clear on and staying true to my values, speaking the hard truths constructively, pursuing accountability, living with spiritual discipline, seeking wholeness and balance. Intimacy is about focusing on connectedness in relationships, living in a spirit of play, owning my part of being in love, nurturing safety and touch, adventuring and laughing, listening and responding, working through conflict with confidence, expressing gratitude, looking for creative opportunity, expecting growth. Women and men of all races tend to reciprocate when I show up as a man of integrity and intimacy.

Kevin Costner, the director and actor, leads with a clear view about what it means to be a good and connective man. Take a look at his 2003 film, Open Range. The movie portrays integrity and honor, respect and intimacy among men and women under stress. His commentary as the director profoundly illustrates how he led the project from the inside out.

Find and study The End of Men, by Hannah Rosin. Not a fun read, but it will challenge you to step up and engage as a man, for your own sake, and for the boys, girls, and women in your life.

And one more thing: as white men, Diversity ‘R’ Us. Here’s a multiple- choice quiz question:

Put twenty white male leaders in a room together, and what do you have?

a) Four golfers, four video game guys, three runners, a b-ball player, a swimmer, a tennis wannabe, and six who think the rest of us get too much exercise.

b) Too many opinions and a lot of interrupting.

c) A striking assortment of hair loss, sore muscles, fashion blunders, and bad jokes.

d) A power struggle.

e) Twenty utterly unique individuals.

Answer: e (okay, maybe all of the above)

A battalion of white men in business suits features awesomely diverse characters.

I invite you to decide who you are as one of those unique men. Specifically write out your own ‘Personal Take’ on what being a man means to you, like the box above. Then the adventure gets underway: living out your decision to get what you want and to become the man you want to be – at home, as a leader at work, and across your life and lifetime.