A new kind of masculinity
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is popularising a new kind of masculinity which is inspiring men and women globally.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a global symbol of heroism in his role in his country’s resistance to a Russian invasion. Just as Vladimir Putin has become a walking version of toxic masculinity, Zelensky is popularising a new kind of masculinity. I say it’s new, it has been around for a while but has not captured the imagination as successfully as embodied by Zelensky’s behaviour and leadership style.
Frequently described as a comedian-turned-president, Zelensky in fact has a law degree. His inclusive style of leadership has highlighted not just the conflict between two nations, and the battle between two men. But it has also highlighted the ongoing struggle to break away from old school thinking around what it means to be a male leader.
He has brought a new kind of masculinity to the fore. I have seen dozens of men and women openly commenting on this stark difference in style between the two men. Zelensky is inspiring men and women globally to believe in him and follow him (for some it could be to their death) without resorting to the type of toxic behaviour typically associated with powerful male leaders in a time of war.
Toxic masculinity is a term that has been gaining traction in the past few years. This term refers to the dominant form of masculinity where men use dominance, violence, and control to assert their power. Layer on personality dysfunctions frequently seen with the type of leader Putin is, we are getting a better insight into the two different styles. Putin is flagrantly ignoring protocols around safe passage for civilians. Like a rat backed into a corner, pundits believe his only goal is to win, whatever the cost, another characteristic of toxic masculinity.
He doesn’t care about the loss of life for innocent victims and the destruction of livelihoods and property, with people fleeing their homeland in their hundreds of thousands. Putin is currently implementing martial law to keep Russians in Russia. Zelensky is inspiring people to travel to Ukraine to fight, possibly die, even non-nationals.
New kind of masculinity
In a relatively short time, Zelensky has shown himself to be an empathetic and charismatic leader. A master of the power of social media he is bringing in a new type of follower with short impactful messages on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. If there were any doubts about his presidential candidacy before the conflict, it is definitely a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” He has shown himself to be a capable chameleon and morph from a political to an inspirational war-time leader.
Photo ops and interviews see him eating with his men wearing military fatigues, and coming from behind the podium to sit face to face with journalists. In his inauguration speech he famously said:
“The president is not an icon. Hang pictures of your children in your offices and look them in the eyes before every decision” –
There is a certain snobbery and condescension around the comment of his career pivot from a comedian turned president. Yet there are many transferable skills. The ability to read a room and adapt to an audience, being a quick and agile thinker and good communicator. These are great leadership skills.
What I hope will be a long-term lesson from this is that men and women will see that being a male leader does not have to involve hard-line, macho posturing and rhetoric. Unhealthy masculinity is incredibly detrimental to men. Research has shown that men who display traits of toxic masculinity are more likely to experience mental health issues, social isolation, poor health, a tendency towards violence specifically against women, as men may feel entitled or validated in their abusive behaviour.
With Zelensky role modelling this new kind of masculinity perhaps the value of it will gain greater traction in our other organisations.
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