I was skeptical when I went to see a counsellor for the first time. It was December, and an early cold snap had blanketed the city in soft, fluffy snow drifts, meaning I couldn’t ride my skateboard — my normal mode of getting around town. I was young, money was tight, and the counsellor’s time cost more for an hour than I earned in a day. Trudging through the snow, I weighed the costs and benefits of the wad of bills in my pocket against the sinking feeling in my gut.
When I look back on that experience, I recognize my younger self in a predicament familiar to many young men: feeling the pressure of “dealing with it all myself”, but lacking a meaningful understanding how. It all seemed so helpless, and both floundering on my own and asking for help felt like I was failing. I had made a choice of not choosing, turning to pot, girls and the Internet to distract me from my self-pity.
You could say I was still living life one reaction at a time.
Things could have turned much worse, if it weren’t for a friend of mine — an older man who strongly encouraged me to spend the money on the counsellor. Fortunately, that first session went much better than I could have expected, and over the ensuing years I’ve lost the shame I once felt over asking for help. To this day, I’m grateful that I had the good fortune of having an older male friend who cared enough to offer guidance. It was a true privilege. One that, among many men of my generation, is disconcertingly rare.
Men are suffering now, perhaps as widely and generally as ever before. The facts are stark: in America, boys and men have fallen behind girls and women at every stage in the education system, from kindergarten to post-secondary — including in the STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) where cultural biases inaccurately presumed that men held some genetic upper hand. A recent NYT articlereported that “the greater success being enjoyed by girls results not from superior intellect but from better study habits. Girls typically demonstrate more focus, effort and self-discipline. Boys and young men are more likely to be distracted by video games, or even derailed by drink or drugs.”
As a young, white man, I feel these issues deeply, even as I applaud the continuing progress made by women in changing traditionally patriarchal workplaces. Though I deeply support a world where all people are valued on their own merits, I believe that historical wrongs perpetrated against women do not and should not dampen conversation about the emotional health of today’s men. Nor do I believe that male and female executives can overlook a more essential truth: that happy, creative and productive workplaces do not depend on simplistic ratios between the genders.
Happy, creative and productive workplaces are built on a foundation of intimacy, integrity and trust.
How can both women and men be encouraged to embody these three important virtues? This is a question I have continually asked myself over the years of soul searching since I first met that counsellor. My search has led me to anthropologists like Mircea Eliade, storytellers like Joseph Campbell, and psychologists like Carl Jung who all investigated the ancient idea of initiation — the historical rites of passage that young boys would perform to transition into the world of men.
“For thousands of years, rites of initiation have been teaching rebirth from the spirit, yet man has forgotten the meaning of divine initiatory procreation in our times. This forgetfulness causes him to suffer a loss of soul, a condition that sadly is everywhere present today.”
It was my counsellor who suggested investigating initiation. In that first session, I learned that there is a difference between being a “grown-up” and an “adult”. A grown-up is a child’s version of an adult — someone saddled with unending responsibilities and no time for play. But an adult is something that a child can’t imagine.
For those of us who have become adults, it’s clear that the deep rewards of contribution, achievement and belonging vastly exceed the temporary pleasures of bohemian escapism. This realization is the value of initiation.
And this is why organizations must understand initiation when turning their attention to equality issues in the workplace. Because there can be no harmony between the genders if there are no adults. There can be no gender equality without initiated women and men.
As I understand it, a woman’s experience of the world is different than a man’s. In the workplace, organizations like LeanIn.Org have encouraged women to overcome unconscious biases against speaking up and acting assertively that have limited their career progress. Generations of feminists have helped to create support systems that have painstakingly nurtured a new vision of what it means to be a woman. This is a prime, contemporary example of initiatory practice. It is with high regard for this progress that I observe that similar infrastructure does not exist for men.
I believe the coming years will be marked by a radical shift in the way that we think about corporations. In addition to being money-making entities, corporations will become people-making entities. Organizational cultures will take on the responsibilities performed for so many years by the priests, rabbis, imams and other teachers of organized religions, bestowing upon their employees foundational values of purpose and meaning and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. This will apply equally to men, women and other genders; to existing cultural and racial groups, as well as new and emerging ones. In fact, we can already see it happening — the way that we use Facebook to follow transitions in our friends’ identities; the way we contextualize transformative world events through the social graph of Twitter and Instagram; the way Google and many other tech giants trumpet the impact of culture on their creativity, productivity and profit.
It has already become self-evident that a strong corporate culture is the key for long-term success. Corporations will soon realize that their primary “product” is identity creation.
Yes, many corporations will continue to manipulate the uninitiated for short-term gain. But organizations built for the long term won’t blare platitudes (like Coca Cola’s new “Taste the Feeling” campaign). Instead, they’ll attract and retain high value talent by creating cultures where people want to belong. Having already realized the impact of culture on profit, these organizations will strive for authenticity — speaking honestly, thinking deeply and integrating equality into the way they act.
To do so, they must ignore Coca Cola’s advice and feel the feeling instead. There, they may discover what I did: that I had an incomplete idea of what masculinity meant. That I sought power that was based on other people’s approval. That I overvalued my thoughts and undermined my feelings. That I relied too heavily on the data instead of trusting my gut.
It was only when I realized how hurt I was, and how angry I was, and how grief-stricken I was that I could win the benefits of my initiation — not healing as much as perspective, and humility, and a process for integrating what I thought with how I felt. Along the way, I realized that intelligence can not be expressed through data points, but through the skillful integration of head and heart.
Our world is in crisis. It is no longer possible to ignore the impact that wounded masculinity is having on the world — the school shootings, the objectification, the consumerism and the environmental degradation. Many of us are distracting ourselves from how desperately we want our power back. I believe the only response is to step into maturity, however unknown and scary that may seem, and that the only way to maturity is by feeling our feelings, good or bad.
I believe that, in the process, we will discover the future of business. Let’s go there together, men and women. Together, let’s find out.
Jordan Bower is an Expert in Corporate Intimacy. He leads Corporate Vision Quests and designs initiatory processes for organizations. He is a passionate and thoughtful public speaker. His website is www.jordanbower.com.