‘Power of the Dog’ and toxic masculinity at work

By David MM Taffet 6 minutes read

I couldn’t sleep after watching it Jane Campion‘s Golden Globe-winning film, The power of the dog, an emotionally charged Western lead Benedict Cumberbatch as a rancher in rural Montana in the 1920s. Despite the fact that my father’s family is from Montana and that his father lost his thumb when it broke a stallion, it’s the sickening, lifelike depiction of toxic masculinity that really struck me.

The film serves as a stark reminder of how little has changed over the past century and how much work remains to be done for leaders in all walks of life. Perhaps most disturbing is how accurately the film portrays it Culture of Masculinity Competition— a dog-eat-dog worldview that sanctifies stereotypical male traits like “emotional toughness, physical endurance, and recklessness” — traits that continue to permeate work culture in the United States

As a result of the #MeToo movement, the business community has undoubtedly become less tolerant and more critical of toxic masculinity, but only to the extent that these behaviors become illegal (e.g., sexual harassment and assault). Campion’s film is an opportunity to revive a public conversation about the culture that has so long allowed sexual assault and harassment to run unchecked. Most importantly, it provides an opportunity to discuss solutions to eradicating the masculinity-competitive culture in the workplace. And it starts with flexing an unlikely muscle—your own vulnerability.

Cumberbatch’s Cruelty

In the film, Cumberbatch plays Phil, a cowboy and ranch owner whose excellence in hypermasculine norms masks a deeply hidden vulnerability. More than just a master of the cowboy arts (i.e. horseback riding, castrating calves, lassoing, etc.), Phil bases every action on the tenets of competitive manhood culture. He viciously torments his sister-in-law, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son (Phil’s nephew), Peter, played by Kodi Smit McPhee, who recently won a Golden Globe for his performance. Phil’s emotionally violent attacks on Peter’s “womanish” demeanor become the film’s central tension as their relationship unfolds into something more complex.

Peter’s bullying experience brought back memories of my own youth. As a sensitive and precocious 5-foot-tall bookworm with dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney, I lacked the masculine trappings of myself fighter pilot father who fell in Vietnam or my taller, athletic brothers; and I was bullied for it. Though I grew five inches in college and now stand a whopping 5 foot 5, 92% of all American men are still taller than me. As a result, my physical, emotional, and intellectual strength is often underestimated. Apart from that I am acc The Atlantic, part of an elite crew of less than 8% men who have confidently married a taller woman!

When I pursued my lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer, I mistakenly assumed that I would find solace in a community of like-minded people who were there for the right reasons. I’m sure you know where this is going. As fate would have it, I was assigned to the firm’s three notoriously argumentative partners, one of whom was so difficult that he broke through three associates in less than a year. Unbeknownst to him, I had practiced fighting off bullies all my life. Aside from being my boss, he wasn’t any different from the others.

I decided I’d rather lose than win with the bullies at the firm, so after just five years I left law to start my own business. Almost three decades later, I regret to say that the culture of male competition is still the accepted norm, both in law and in most other industries. I’m forced to fight it regularly as a coach and factional leader.

When an organization embraces and relies on the culture of male competition as a scare tactic for productivity, dysfunction always occurs. Toxicity of this sort is often disguised with false, shame-inducing monikers like “meritocracy,” implying that the means justify the end, regardless of their malign nature or harmful consequences. This behavior can yield high returns in the short term, but only at the expense of the health and well-being of the organization.

rewrite labor standards

So what can leaders do to eradicate this insidious enemy? Based on this, we have to rewrite working standards together: especially in difficult situations, put your insecurities on the table instead of hiding them and letting them weigh you down. I cannot stress enough the power of this one act. People will find your approach refreshing and endearing. They will respect you more, drop their guard, and open up to more authentic, connected conversations.

Truly confident leaders know they don’t have a market for justice. I’ve found that being willing to acknowledge your insecurities, vulnerabilities, flaws, and mistakes—not just when forced to, but as a regular habit—dissolves egos and repositions your vulnerabilities as strengths—a path to connection through shared challenges.

Leading in this way creates a psychologically safe environment. It gives others license to embrace their own vulnerabilities. In turn, people are happier, collaboration is stronger, and execution is improved. Leaders who take this bold approach actually gain respect, empathy, and support, making them more human and fostering a deeper emotional connection. This happens in the movie when Phil starts taking Peter under his wing. The two form a close bond, but ultimately Phil’s abusive behavior is unforgivable. Despite the pressure to bend, Peter remains true to himself through and through.

growth and vulnerability

Anyone who’s actually been through the wrestlers will tell you that growth comes from vulnerability and discomfort; embracing both is a sign of true strength. As for the “old” advice to separate personal and professional life? In this context, it’s complete nonsense. As a leader, sharing your authentic self in the workplace fosters the kind of warm, family environment we all crave. It inspires trust and generates psychological security.

Given that my portly wife is my business partner, we work full-time from home, and our team members are like family to us, you could say my pendulum has swung too far. Granted, that may be too much for some. But at least consider what would happen if you dropped the ceremonial divide between who you are as a workplace leader and who you are as a person. As you embrace your vulnerability and discomfort, I assure you that you and your team will feel lighter, happier, and more connected by your shared humanity—warts and all.

In the context of 1920s Montana, that kind of vulnerability would likely have led to violence and abuse in someone like Phil, so I don’t blame his character for wanting to hide his authentic self. Nor am I suggesting that people should unnecessarily disclose personal details that could put them at risk. But in 2022, as leaders, we have the freedom and responsibility to model a healthy level of vulnerability that reflects the truth of human experience. This can bring us closer together as organisations, colleagues and friends.

In closing, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to attack the concept of masculinity or men as a monolithic group. I’m talking about addressing the set of toxic behaviors that we accept as the “rules of the game.” These rules have historically been set by men, but they are upheld and accepted by all of us, including people of all genders, races, classes and abilities. People like Ghislane Maxwell, the was found guilty of sex trafficking, are proof of that.

Recently, Harvard Business Review identified fairness and equity as the Top priorities for leaders in 2022. By embracing your discomfort and recognizing the power of vulnerability – yours and that of others – begin taking steps toward a fairer and fairer work environment immediately. Neither gender nor gender can predict whether they will adopt toxic or predatory behaviors, and every leader has the potential to become a Phil or a Ghislane. We all have a responsibility not to do this.

David MM Taffet is an executive coach, co-founder and venture builder at JukeStrat, a purpose-driven advisory group focused on business transformation, positioning and social impact. Serving as a fractional C-level consultant and executive coach for several of his clients, he draws on his 30+ years of experience in building businesses, orchestrating turnarounds, leading successful teams, raising capital and developing cross-industry partnerships for businesses and… win back the public.