The Strongman versus the Strong Man

There’s a world of difference

Kevin Donovan
8 min readJun 21, 2024
Photo by KieferPix

As a longtime student of human behavior and a well-seasoned man myself, I have long been fascinated by a dynamic that I refer to as the TAT factor. “TAT” stands for Threshold of Ambiguity Tolerance — a point on a spectrum at which each of us is unable to accept some level of uncertainty in our lives without experiencing a crisis of sanity.

Because life itself is an endeavor with dramatically varying levels of certainty, and we all are attempting to navigate those unknowns while holding ourselves together, our tolerance for ambiguity has a substantial influence on what we believe, how we treat each other, and how we treat ourselves. Within our space and time on Earth, we are surrounded by anxiety-producing stimuli, so in this context, having a high tolerance for ambiguity is a sign of great strength.

But what is strength?

Historically, strength is one of the most misperceived attributes known to humanity, and this is especially true when it comes to our culturally defined ever-changing understanding of the male gender. For reasons that trace back to its evolutionary benefits, our modern society has long correlated masculinity and manhood with strength, creating a toxic brew of social stigma for any man who may not demonstrate a gender-affirming modicum of it. But strength, as society often perceives it, is far different than what it actually is.

In our current state of severe social ambiguity and economic uncertainty, it shouldn’t surprise us that we are facing a so-called “crisis of manhood”, but in reality, the question of how to define ourselves — our purpose, our place in society, our meaning to others — has been an ongoing struggle for much of human history. This has given rise to an archetype of male compensation and faux strength known as the Strongman.

When we hear the word, we immediately think of the despotic political dictators, past and present, whose behavior is characterized by brutality and power. Strongmen are behaviorally identical; they rule with maximum control and minimal ambiguity, striking a combination of fear, awe, and envy in their subjects. They eliminate uncertainty by accumulating power and destroying any threats to it. They posture and preen to solicit expressions of love and support from their loyal followers, and yet there is no bottom to their insecurities — no satiation of hunger for approval — because somewhere in the subconscious regions of their psyche, they know they are a fraud.

Should the strongman be wronged, there is only one solution: Overwhelming vengeance and destruction, because anything less would shatter the illusion of the strongman’s strength, sending the wrong message to the potential challengers to his power and the many loyal enablers who accept that illusion.

The strongman defines himself entirely by who he is relative to everyone else. His is a zero-sum game for power, attention, money, adulation, and sexual conquest (real or imagined). Anyone else who might capture a slice of the spotlight is perceived as a competitor.

But as you may have guessed by now, if we pull back the curtain on the strongman, his frailty becomes blindingly obvious. Because the illusion of strength is so essential to the strongman’s identity, it will all melt away under the sunshine of truth, exposing him as the personification of weakness.

As we all know, these behavioral attributes are not exclusive to political dictators. Most of us have encountered other versions of strongmen in our lives — in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our churches, and even in our families. In so many instances, they are the manifestations of our crisis of manhood — the bullies, the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes — the people we can safely classify as being low TAT. They will gravitate to those like-minded individuals who validate their strongman identity — bros, trolls, and moles whose default state of anger and belligerence is a smokescreen for their fears. Like the average dictator who can’t trust anyone, those fears drive their need for control in an uncontrollable world, even if the domain over which they rule ends up being their parents’ basement.

Strongmen seek domination over that which they cannot understand: Gay people, Black people, immigrant people, and of course, women-people. In truth, they fear them all, and so their visceral response to people unlike them is a toxic blend of humiliation, degradation, domination, and dehumanization, or as they have taken to calling it in recent years “ownership.” And all through it, they delude themselves into thinking that this is what it means to be a man.

Theirs is a sad downward spiral of isolating weakness — a state of mind that too often ends in tragedy. The gun manufacturers are well aware that this is their target market, with one even pushing sales with the slogan: CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED. For the strongmen among us, destroying what they do not understand is their way of regaining control, and the only variable is the lethality of their destruction.

But they are neither strong nor are they anything close to the men we should aspire to be. They are strongmen, but they are not strong men.

It is not easy to be a man, especially now. For white men like me, we once had a very clear purpose — we were the breadwinners, the paternal authorities, the heads of the household, the pinnacle of the racial and gender caste system. There was no ambiguity to tolerate — we reigned atop the human hierarchy.

People once turned to us for all the answers, and too many of us are shocked that they no longer do. There are more women in college, more independent women in leadership roles, and more women making more money than ever before. A core traditional purpose of being a man — the one in which women were dependent upon us — is largely extinct. And despite the small pockets of so-called “Trad Wives” seeking men to fund their existence in exchange for total subservience, the gender hierarchy isn’t coming back, and nor should it. (And of course, there is still much work to be done to dismantle the racial hierarchy).

This is disorienting for millions of men, which makes this a perfect time for a refresher on what actual strength is and what it means to be a strong man rather than a strongman.

A strong man does not fear ambiguity. He is comfortable with who he is. He is not a victim of his circumstances but a navigator of them. He does not define his success based on the failure or status of others. He does not judge himself by the car he drives, the house he owns, or the guns he shoots.

A strong man is radically empathetic, strong enough to conceive of what it must be like to be someone who is not like him, to face a world of great ambiguities and challenges that he has never encountered.

A strong man embraces the mystery and excitement of a woman, or a person from a faraway land, and as he preserves his understanding of them as fellow humans, he will instinctively rise to protect them from harm if necessary.

A strong heterosexual man does not fear gay, lesbian, or transgender people. He knows he can’t fully relate to their desires, but he recognizes them as fully human and worthy of pride.

A strong man is energized by diversity and diminished by homogeneity. Humans are the most complex and ambiguous entities in our known universe, which means they are the preeminent wellspring of stimulation and enlightenment. While the world, and especially the people in it, can be daunting and threatening, a strong man is not threatened.

A strong man is a lifelong student. Knowledge that might contradict his beliefs is welcomed. Conclusions are dead ends, that often close off the path to intellectual growth; the strong man is resistant to generalizations, conspiracies and dogma, and open to the possibility that he may be wrong.

A strong man is strong enough to accept when he is wrong. He is flawed and he makes mistakes, but in doing so he does not try to “double down” or cover them up. He learns from them, he adapts to them, and he moves on with the knowledge he needs to do better.

A strong man does not need credit for or recognition of his strength. He is enriched by others’ success and his ability to contribute to, support, mentor and guide others. His strength is a force that lifts the people around him.

A strong man is capable of love, emotion, tears, and tenderness. He is a man, but he is most importantly a human, immune from the archaic judgments of weakness that might be made when he shows his humanity.

While the strongman is ironic, a “strong man” as a descriptive term was once redundant. Being a man was synonymous with the type of strength that wasn’t defined by the weakness surrounding him. When our purpose was clear, a man’s strength benefited far more than himself. That strength was shared and disseminated, emerging in the form of stronger families, communities, churches, companies, governments, schools and other institutions. That deep commitment to and engagement with our world, in partnership with women, was what it meant to be, simply, a man.

Now, stripped of their purpose and default positions of power, so many men see themselves in an existential competition with the people around them. Now, they see their success as purely a function of the demise of others. It is an inevitably self-destructive pursuit, and their weakness hurts us all.

Granted, our age of ambiguity presents new and unique challenges for men. These are certainly times that try men’s souls, but they can also be a call to action.

It’s too easy to imagine that the world is against men — that all of this talk of male toxicity and gender fluidity and women’s empowerment and whatever else is wrong with men is a direct attack on them. The reality is that our country continues to be a center of massive social change, but this is the world we live in — this is when we need to suck it up and face the world with courage and strength. Who promised us this would be easy?

We can either wallow in our own self-created victimization or we can rise to the challenge it presents. We can accept that we can’t control the world as we once did, we can expand our capacity to empathize with those unlike ourselves, and we can learn and grow, not just to the benefit of ourselves, but most importantly, to the benefit of everyone around us. We already have far too many strongmen. We need far more strong men who are ready to use it to strengthen our community of humanity. This can be our legacy.

This is what it means to be strong, and this is the time for strong men.

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Kevin Donovan

Where there is great fear, there is no empathy. Where there is great empathy, there is no fear.