Voice Male Spring 2004
Not Your Typical Workplace:
Practicing a New Style of Men's Leadership
By Michael Dover and Rob Okun
Co-Directors, Men's Resource Center
When the Men's Resource Center's founding executive director, Steven Botkin, took a year's leave of absence last September, the change posed intellectual and emotional challenges not just to Steven. It posed challenges to all of us working at and guiding the organization. Steven had been leading the MRC since its founding 21 years ago (see "Journey into Sabbatical," Voice Male Fall 2003), so the change for him would be huge. The questions he would face--not having to expending time and energy on the MRC's day-to-day operations--would be mirrored by ours, ratcheting up our roles helping to lead the MRC. Equally important, the MRC faced the prospect of carrying on leadership responsibilities without Steven's daily wisdom, guidance, and engagement. The sabbatical became an opportunity not only for Steven to rest and reflect, but for all of us to take a fresh look at how the MRC operates. What might we do differently? What is leadership in the context of the MRC's mission? Who holds the vision of the MRC and in what ways?
September also marked the end of a difficult summer, one in which we had to make major cuts to our budget for a fiscal year that was already under way. Absorbing $54,000 in cuts from the state along with other losses of revenue meant we had to eliminate more than $100,000 in expenses, including staff hours and programming. As we began the job of co-directing the MRC we felt these twin issues--Steven's departure and the budget crunch--pressing in on our colleagues and friends who comprise the staff here.
A week after assuming our new responsibilities we held a day-long staff retreat, a time to share our feelings about the changes that had taken place and our concerns for the future. We talked, we listened, we took the time to understand how each of us was dealing with these challenges. At the end of the day, one staff member succinctly summed up the experience: he said he was reminded that at its core, "connection was what the MRC is all about." We knew then that the organization was going to be all right, that the MRC is--and always has been--much more than one person, however important that person has been to its founding and growth. We were expanding the sense of ownership and shared responsibility. And it felt good and right.
In the months since September, we have evolved a form of leadership that reflects both our personal styles and our shared vision for the MRC. We begin each week by checking in with each other: what's happening this week, what's on our minds, where do we need help? It's a chance for us each to put aside any sense of isolation, to connect our home lives with our work, to know that we're here to support each other. It's also a way to make sure we're sharing the load equitably; even when a difficulty can't be equally shared we can each still understand what the other is going through and what he needs to get through it--not unlike what happens in MRC support groups five times every week.
Our co-directorship has come to be characterized by a great deal of consultation. We confer with each other before making most decisions, though we also divide some responsibilities. On key decisions, sharing responsibility often means pausing long enough to talk the issue through together rather than responding immediately. That pause can provide a useful break from the apparent pressure to decide and result in a more carefully thought out response. Either of us acting alone might not take that pause, but working together we enforce it on ourselves and are better for it. Consultation also means talking with our fellow staff members, inviting their participation in questions we're facing, learning what issues they're dealing with, encouraging them to share information with each other. If we're all in this together, we all need to know what's going on.
If this doesn't sound like the typical workplace, it isn't. Work is the place where the masculine culture of domination, isolation, and competition typically has thrived. If capitalism is the economic expression of traditional patriarchy, the workplace is its enforcement mechanism. It's the place where "power over" is perfected and promoted. It's also the place where men are told they define themselves, more than anywhere else in their lives. We are collectively told that we are our work, and that our worth is in the power we wield through our work. If inherent in the MRC mission is redefining masculinity, then there's no better place to start than in how we work together.
And yet, we're not a collective. We have a definite salary structure and a line of responsibility. We are co-directors who supervise program directors who in turn may supervise other staff. But we can approach those roles in ways that break the stereotypes, respect each person's particular contribution and capacity, and support each other in our work and our lives. And we can create an environment that says we are all the owners of the enterprise, because we all are co-creators of it.
The MRC's mission statement says we're working to "develop men's leadership in ending oppression." Where else to begin than where we are? We leave it to those who succeed us to judge what progress our tenure makes toward that goal.