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A different kind of masculinity

22 February 2021 at 8:29 am
Maggie Coggan
As the CEO of The Man Cave, Hunter Johnson is fighting to change the conversation around what it means to truly be a man. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 22 February 2021 at 8:29 am


A different kind of masculinity
22 February 2021 at 8:29 am

As the CEO of The Man Cave, Hunter Johnson is fighting to change the conversation around what it means to truly be a man. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Growing up, Hunter Johnson believed that bottling up feelings, acting tough, and getting on with it was the way to be a man. 

It was the culture he was surrounded with, and he didn’t know any better. 

But after an honest conversation with his best friend and co-founder of The Man Cave, Jamin Heppell, the pair realised this idea of masculinity was causing problems. They saw a need to work with young men at a preventative level to see lasting change on issues such as mental illness and domestic violence.

Johnson and his team at The Man Cave have now worked with around 20,000 boys, parents and teachers across Australia through programs that allow young men to explore and express who they really are, instead of toxic ideals of masculinity. 

His work has led him to speak around the world including presenting at the United Nations, Government House, the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Town Hall, graduation ceremonies and various universities.  

He has been recognised as a finalist for the 2020 Young Australian of the Year Awards, listed as one of Harper’s Bazaar’s “Visionary Men of 2019”, named a 2018 Queen’s Young Leader by Her Majesty The Queen, and named 2018 winner of the EY Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the story behind The Man Cave, why upholding the right values in your team is critical, and how he recharges as a leader. 

How did The Man Cave come about?

I grew up around a pretty masculine culture and totally drank the Kool-Aid for a really long time because that was the model of success for being a young man. It was all about being strong, stoic, showing no emotion, and just dealing with any problems you had on your own. Fortunately my parents really encouraged me to follow my own path. That was something I rebelled against for as long as possible until I finally realised that you can actually do well financially and do good socially at the same time – that’s actually an amazing opportunity our generation has.

The second part of it was a conversation I had with one of my best mates, where we started to share our own life experiences of seeing some of the most important men in our life go through years of anxiety, depression and even suicide. On the other side of that, we were seeing some of the most important women in our lives – women who have raised us, shaped us into the men we are – go through their own experiences of physical or sexual abuse. We looked at the system around mental health and family violence and realised it was all around crisis management and nothing really going on at an early intervention or preventative level. And we thought why don’t we go to the root cause of it instead of trying to treat the symptoms? And that was the origin of it way back in 2014 when we ran our very first program.

And since then, what kind of positive impact have you seen from the kids that you’re working with?

We’ve now worked with close to 20,000 young men and we’re scheduled for about 15,000 this year. We do deep work, opposed to just walking in and taking them through a PowerPoint presentation to try fix masculinity. A lot of that work is around facilitation, understanding group dynamics, understanding culture, which takes quite a lot of skill and investment from those delivering the program. 

We regularly get emails coming in from parents, from boys, from teachers saying things like “my son’s going through five years of seeing a psychologist, and he got more out of your program today because he finally realised he wasn’t alone”. The other day we actually got a message from a young man saying that he’d learnt more about his best mate in the program than in their five years of friendship, and that they’d now started a group chat where they could talk openly and honestly about things. These are 13, 14-year-old boys who haven’t known it’s possible to have this level of authentic connection and conversation.

How have you been able to manage something that started out as a passion project, and grow it without losing any of that initial drive and impact?

The honest answer is I’m just very fortunate to have a talented team around me, including our board who are just insanely committed, driven, and values-led leaders. As we’ve reached a level of challenge or opportunity, just having people to not only rely on but that can pull me up to the next level of my leadership, has been invaluable. I also think the world that we live in is such a fascinating time for masculinity.

Look at the world leaders that we’ve had, they are the ones who are setting the standards for the next generation of young men. I mean, just last week, Scott Morrison said he developed empathy for the alleged sexual assault victim because he’d had a conversation with his wife about it. It’s like, wow, that is what we’re producing as the ultimate male role model for a powerful leader. The narrative that we try to push is let’s work at a preventative level as opposed to a crisis management level, and I think people are starting to get that.

How do you manage challenges in your job and stay grounded and focused on what you’re trying to achieve?

Managing my energy and my time is a really big learning that I’ve had, and actually understanding what that means to me. It’s about ensuring that I’m fit and healthy and taking care of myself, particularly in the line of business that we’re in. I’d be out of integrity if I wasn’t showing up emotionally healthy and spiritually healthy to work. 

I also have an amazing team of mentors around me who I really look at as like the personal advisory board to my life. People who have come from very different life experiences and backgrounds, and these are people I’ll catch up with for a beer, for a coffee, a dinner, and some people it’s more formal. But each of them support me as I navigate through the daily [challenges] that come with growing a charity and now a new business.

What are some of your favorite parts of your job?

The culture that we have at The Man Cave is pretty incredible. One of the values that we have is humanity first. So irrespective of how big your to-do list is, how many stresses there are, we’ll treat you as a human being first and foremost. And what we do every single day as an organisation is a check-in where people get 30 to 60 seconds, to just talk about how they’re feeling and how their life’s going right now. To have that as a daily ritual means that people get to show up fully, and with that level of authenticity and vulnerability, it actually brings deeper connection as a community and as a culture. And so I think for me, just seeing, living, and breathing in a culture where people feel like they can show up authentically not only means that they love working at The Man Cave, but also that we get amazing results in what we do. 

I also just love the challenge of trying to grow and scale an organisation that’s trying its best to eradicate a massive, massive problem. I think that the nonconformist, rebellious part of me likes that it’s bloody tough.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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