Eliminating Male Toxicity To Become a Better Leader

Empowered professional femail looking off camera with a smile

MP recently spoke with Andrea Kayne, the author of Kicking Ass in a Corset. Kayne serves as director of the doctoral program in educational leadership and is an associate professor at DePaul University. She has taught, written, and consulted in empowered leadership, feminist leadership, emotionally intelligent leadership, and internally referenced leadership. Her new courses, based on internally referenced leadership, are offered in partnership with DePaul University.

Kayne received her Bachelor of Arts from Vassar College, her Master of Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and her Juris Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

MP: What are some ways that some who have internalized patriarchy can unlearn those values and have the confidence to create their values?

AK: An internally referenced leader knows and speaks her truth and is skeptical about the existence of what other people call universal truths or even what we have accepted as universal truths. From the very first line in Pride and Prejudice—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—Jane Austen suggests that most of what we consider universal truths are merely socially constructed values “well fixed” in the minds of those around us. Jane Austen teaches us that to be internally referenced leaders, we must de-universalize our truths.

We need to understand that those things we think of as fixed or settled or sacred or just the way it is are not necessarily so. Uncover those subconscious forces and factors—family, community, organizations, employers, celebrities, and other influencers—that we have allowed trespassing on our thinking to invade our minds and beliefs about our world and ourselves, without even realizing it. The first step is to inventory dissonant emotions and the underlying trespass on personal values that they might reveal. The next step in de-universalizing our truths is to ask whether the values that prompted the dissonance come from our authentic self or from the voices of people in our lives whose disproportionate influence we have internalized.                            

What can be a way to facilitate this learning, in a non-aggressive way, for men, and how does that differ from how we explain it to women?

The Internally Referenced Leadership principles that Jane Austen has inspired are more about empowering women to perceive themselves and their work with agency and an internal locus of control rather than shaming or blaming the men with whom they work. Moreover, all of these principles create cultures where everyone can self-actualize, be vulnerable, and find personal meaning in the workplace.

Do you believe male toxicity has contributed to the patriarchy and arguably keeps it alive within the workforce?

Jane Austen has taught us to prefer and create paradigms based on hard work and merit rather than entitlement privilege. She also provides guidance on surviving those paradigms even when we don’t have the opportunity to change or leave those situations. In Persuasion, the two contrasting paradigms of leadership, privilege, and entitlement versus hard work and merit, are also found in the corporate world, political world, and almost every other realm. In all these environments, the question is whether we want to work for and with people like the industrious, intelligent Admiral and Mrs. Croft or people like the shallow and entitled Sir Walter Elliot. What is interesting to me is that the toxic masculinity of Sir Walter Eliot not only harms women but also harms men. The toxic men who use privilege and entitlement to push women down are ultimately insecure and weak and, on some level, know they are using shortcuts and privilege because they are frauds.                                             

What made you decide to choose the women you chose, such as Jane Austen, to discuss through literature?  

In the course of my work, I point to well-known role models in education, business, and government to illustrate the characteristics of internally referenced leadership and to show how particular women leaders have successfully navigated difficult work and gender dynamics. Surprisingly, however, it is the comparison not to modern-day examples but to Jane Austen’s heroines that makes the most impact on the participants I’m addressing—regardless of whether they’ve read Jane Austen. Each of Austen’s heroines inspired me to be a leader who felt empowered from an internal locus of control—no matter my situation and how little control I had. She taught me that I could be confident, principled, playful, humble, pragmatic, and hardworking despite what was happening around me and how others viewed me. 

Is there anyone you would add now, perhaps for different reasons?

Many kick-ass internally referenced women inspire me, from Nancy Pelosi to Greta Thunberg to Naomi Osaka and so many more.

You discuss some “shoulds” in Kicking Ass in a Corset that you self-reflected on. Are there any more recent “shoulds” regarding employment that have come to mind as of lately?

Yes, banish the thought that you “should” wait for a seat at the table. Don’t wait for an invitation. You deserve to be there, so pull up your chair!

You discuss Elinor Dashwood and how she decides to calmly solve issues instead of being a victim and accepting her fate. How do we empower young minds to accept their situations while also giving them the strength to persevere and not be overwhelmed with society?

Resilience can be taught, and for young minds, the presence and support of a trusted adult are critical. Let them know that asking for help when needed is not a sign of weakness. We can hold space for them to express their feelings and accept difficult circumstances. We can teach them to reframe, look at the positives, and model resiliency. It’s ok to be disappointed when things don’t work out, but it’s essential to discuss what they’ve learned in these situations.

Self-determination and self-actualization seem to be two pillars that we need. Do you think it is best to figure this out before starting a company and being a leader to those beyond yourself instead of learning as you go through life?

We’re all constantly learning. Once people realize they can source their power from within, they’ll know that anything is possible. And when they fail, they’ll get back up again, armed with more knowledge and stronger than before. So, it is a lifelong practice rather than a fixed destination. That said, I am very grateful that my 24-year-old daughter and her cohort have been raised with the more empowering message to live and speak from the inside out.