in the 21st century, a widely asked question is how can the concept of traditional masculinity be redefined, and respected simultaneously? In his speech “Citizenship in a Republic”, sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech, Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
What does it really mean for a man to be “in the arena?” Most boys and men would probably answer that it’s about winning, being in charge, making more money, getting a promotion or sexual prowess. But what if the experience “in the arena” were about none of these things? What if the Arena was about how you show up as a man in your relationships? What if redefining masculinity and stepping into the arena is about who you are as a person, your values and character, the climate you set when you walk into a room, and has nothing to do with what you accomplish or achieve?
The opportunity is to consider the Arena as a space where men can dare to acknowledge their mental health, be vulnerable and authentic. It is a space where men can honestly share their feelings with each other, their loved ones and the world. It is a space where men are allowed to admit that they don’t have all the answers, where they are encouraged to dream and fail, where they can learn in their relationships about intimacy, courage, connection, empathy, commitment and living one’s truth.
Author and therapist Charlie Glickman uses what he calls “Act Like a Man Box” as the foundation for his workshops with men. As part of his Act Like A Man Box exercise, Glickman asks men in his workshops to brainstorm words that describe “real men” based on questions he asks them about their careers, hobbies and communication style.
Regardless of the age, sexual orientation or race of the men, the responses Glickman receives are remarkably consistent. For most men, a “real man” has a career in business or law, doesn’t express emotions other than anger or excitement, physically looks strong and fit, and has sex with many partners. Think of the pressure this notion of what a “real man” is, puts on men.
For men who define themselves outside this “Man Box” of traditional gender, there’s often the experience of feeling alone and inadequate. This notion of being a “real man” denies men their full humanity and, by doing so, forces men to be less than authentic in their relationships. Redefining masculinity then becomes a task counter to that of looking good and doing what’s needed to fit in.
When a man hides who he is to maintain the façade of a “real man,” the people in his life sense his lack of authenticity and are unable to connect and trust him. The result of this dynamic is that the man turns inward, and grows even more isolated.
Because men have no one to turn to when they are scared or have doubts, they often hire executive coaches in order to open up and be vulnerable. At one leadership consulting firm, a senior officer at a reputable organization hired an executive coach because, as he put it, “I just need to have a real conversation with someone which won’t involve going to the bar with my other guy friends to drink, watch sports and bash my partner.” The executive was dealing with a political battle with another C-level executive, a new baby at home and a dying father. As is true for so many men, this executive didn’t feel he could be vulnerable and share these issues with his partner or his male friends. The shame he might feel for not being a “real man” and handling these issues on his own prevented him from opening up emotionally to the people in his life.
In Brené Brown’s Netflix special, “The Call to Courage,” she discusses how older and young men resist being vulnerable, because they equate vulnerability with weakness which they fear more than anything else. In Brown’s book Daring Greatly, she defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability is also, according to Brown, “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.”
Men have an opportunity to understand that people connect more with men who “tell on themselves,” show emotion, and who share their shortcomings. Men and women connect better with men who are willing to “ask for directions.” People don’t connect to perfectionism. They connect to vulnerability and authenticity. When a man operates from there, other people have access to them in new and meaningful ways.
If we take a closer look at the man “in the arena” in Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, he is the very essence of vulnerability and authenticity. Roosevelt noted, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Notice that for Roosevelt being “in the arena” is not about winning. It’s not about being invincible and getting it just right. Those are tenants of what has been referred to as toxic masculinity. It’s about redefining masculinity with the courage to step into the arena and being all in, immersed in the experience, and authentic in sporting the dust, sweat and blood.
It takes real courage to step into the Arena and expose those places inside ourselves where we’re terrified of what people might see or think about us. It takes courage not to know the outcome and to step into the arena anyway; to be vulnerable and risk being rejected. But if men don’t overcome their fear of what other people might think, if they don’t silence that little voice in their heads that keeps telling them “You’re not a real man,” men will have little chance of deeply connecting with the people in their lives, or feeling that they are truly loved and belong.
Now is such an important time for men to explore what it means to be a man and be “in the arena.” The invitation is for men to step into the Arena and seize this opportunity to redefine masculinity, challenge rigid gender expectations, and what it means to be a man. One of the great gifts that men have to give the world is their ability to care for and protect those around them, but men won’t be able to protect and take care of those they love if they continue to hide behind a façade and not share the whole of who they are.
Do you have the courage to step into the arena without knowing the outcome and risk rejection? Are you committed to creating a different outcome? Do you want to be a part of writing a different narrative? The time is now. The Arena is the place where a man can live life purposefully and experience authentic connection to themselves and to the world. The world is demanding that men to BE different.
If you are inspired by this conversation, please visit this powerful men’s leadership weekend training program at www.thearenaweekend.com.