Statistically, there are more men in leadership positions compared to women. In the US, men hold 74% of senior leadership positions, 96% of CEO positions in S&P’s Fortune 500 companies, and represent 100% of board member positions in 40% of 22,000 publicly traded organizations. These types of positions include business, law, politics, senior higher education staff, and healthcare.

Fortunately, that gap is closing. However, despite women’s physical representation, the rules of the game that everyone must play by are by and large the same: the mold of masculinity.

The mold of masculinity transcends gender: it is a default set of standards typically followed by people in leadership positions around how they engage, communicate, make decisions, relate to others, and create change. Unfortunately, the rigidity and limitations of the mold results in leaders with lopsided range, skills, and abilities to lead effectively. And, because of the predominance of men in influential leadership positions, the mold is perpetuated and reinforced. Too often, these leaders harm those people and organizations that they are supposed to be serving. In order to achieve more balanced, effective, and revolutionary leadership, we need to break the mold of masculinity in leadership.

The Mold of Masculinity

Social scientists Deborah David and Robert Brannon describe four standards of traditional American masculinity that make up the mold:

  1. Anti-femininity or “no sissy stuff”: distancing self from femininity; homophobia; avoiding emotions
  2. Achievement or “be a big wheel”: striving for achievement and success; focusing on competition
  3. Self-reliance or “be a sturdy oak”: avoiding vulnerability; staying composed and in control; acting/being tough
  4. Aggression or “give ’em hell”: acting aggressively to become dominant

These standards are imposed in boys from birth, including what colors, toys, emotions, hobbies, and behaviors are acceptable. They are part of the cultural water we swim in, in many ways unconsciously. Although aspects of these traits can be positive, they often become rigid rules that are taboo to break. And, breaking the rules typically means being seen as weak, vulnerable, soft, or feminine (along with other much more negative words and consequences).

This isn’t about shunning masculine traits entirely or comparing them to feminine traits. As with many human qualities, each has its positive and negative aspects. The problem is that for many men, these traits are a default rather than a choice. The idea of choosing other options is either not on the radar, or undesirable. We must follow the rules, or else. This limits who men can be and not only causes harm to others, but also to ourselves. Not only that, women who are able to get past through the hurdles into senior leadership positions by playing by the rules must also continue to comply in order to stay in those positions.

The Mold of Masculinity in Leadership

The standards above are part of the mold of masculinity that many men either try to fit in or react to. They affect our relationships, health, connection, passion, purpose, and fulfillment. They also influence how we lead. The mold of masculinity in leadership, including organizations and social systems, shows up in ways such as:

Disempowerment: Blaming others and refusing to take accountability for mistakes

Power-over: Dominating, intimidating, and bullying others

Self-reliance: Dismissing and minimizing other’s ideas, feedback, or help; leading in a vacuum without considering the needs of or impact to others; excessive speaking

Distraction/fragmentation: Being disconnected from or unaware of reality, both internally and externally

Numbing: Operating on auto-pilot, workaholism, and excessive focus on completing tasks and output

Competition: One-upping, making others look bad, success at the expense of others

Mental intelligence: Dismissing anything that isn’t rational, logical, or fact-based

In the extreme, these traits manifest in attitudes such as “my way or the highway,” “there’s only one right way – mine,” “do what you’re told, or else,” “show ’em who’s boss,” “teach them a lesson they’ll never forget,” “no fear,” and “might makes right.”

Leaders become confined to this mold and are unable to be flexible and responsive. There is little to no room to choose other behaviors; doing so breaks the rules of masculinity and can result in shaming, ridicule, judgment, doubting, or being perceived as weak.

The consequences of the mold can be severe. Male leaders’ power and status, trapped within the rigid and reactive mold, influence major decisions, policies, laws, and behaviors that greatly impact others. They can lead to organizations being dysfunctional to the point of being run into the ground and perpetuate abuse, illness, corruption, poor morale, in-fighting, and bullying. With such a limited range of leadership capacity, organizations and systems become weak, unstable, and ineffective. People’s lives, especially those with less power, can be altered in severe ways.

Essential Shifts: Breaking the Mold of Masculinity in Leadership

The first step to creating more flexibility, choice, responsiveness, and possibilities for men in leadership is becoming aware of the often invisible mold. We first have to notice its existence and its hold on us. We also need to notice the ways in which we are afraid or uncomfortable (both of which are taboo emotions within the mold) of breaking the mold and begin to move towards that fear or discomfort. We must challenge the status quo and cultivate the strength and courage to expand who we can be as leaders.

Referencing the standard leadership traits above, we can consciously choose to shift our behaviors:

Disempowerment becomes Leadership/Ownership: Taking full accountability for our choices, behaviors, and mistakes

Power-over becomes Power-with: Motivating, supporting, recognizing, and lifting others up

Self-reliance becomes Relating: Asking for help, listening, seeing the bigger picture, noticing and considering other’s feelings and needs

Distraction/Fragmentation becomes Presence: Noticing what is happening within ourselves, others, our environment, and our organizations/systems

Numbing becomes Feeling: Slowing down, finding a work-life balance, and balancing people with process

Competition becomes Co-Creation: Collaborating, seeking and incorporating input and feedback, looking for win-win opportunities

Mental Intelligence becomes Emotional, Spiritual, and Physical Intelligence: Considering emotions, intuitions, experiences, feelings, and other data when making decisions and implementing changes

As I mentioned earlier, this is not about dismissing “traditional” masculine traits entirely. Doing so creates other reactive molds that limit our leadership capacity in other ways. There is a time and place to be aggressive, fact-based, competitive, or self-reliant. However, when we can also be gentle, emotional, cooperative, or interdependent, we have more options to choose from and can be stronger leaders. One of the keys is also learning to discern what type of leadership is needed, which I’ll cover in a future blog.

As leaders, the point is to have the freedom to choose how we want to lead instead of acting on auto-pilot or out of fear. Having a wider range of behaviors, styles, and approaches makes us more effective, powerful, equitable, and trustworthy. We can then respond and adapt to current situations and needs, make better decisions, and serve rather than harm. Again, this transcends gender: it requires reimagining the paradigm of what leadership can look like for everyone, at all levels of our organizations, systems, and society.

A New Model of Leadership

To begin to shift behavior and break the mold, consider the following questions:


  • What are some of your default behaviors that fall within the masculine mold?
  • When you think of breaking the mold, what are your fears and discomforts?
  • Of the essential shifts above, which shift would make you a more effective leader? What behaviors would support that shift?
  • What are some benefits you see in breaking the mold? For yourself? For others?
  • If you are in a position of power or influence, how can you break the mold for others?