08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A False Divide Between Head and Heart: What I Learned From Robert McNamara

The death of Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and key architect of the Vietnam War, brought the controversial name to yesterday's headline news. I came to politics as a war protester and a civil rights activist, and it was not only McNamara's disastrous foreign policies, but his beliefs regarding decision-making and leadership, which made the deepest impact on me and my life's work.

In 1977, McNamara attempted to explain the overarching principle which guided him during the war: "I try to separate human emotion from the larger issue of human welfare." It was this fatal approach that led to unspeakable tragedies and the loss of countless lives during the Vietnam War -- a false divide between head and heart, buoyed by the codes of masculinity.

In my work on behalf of women, I have always taken McNamara's words and deeds to heart: that the rigid confines of masculinity often encourage men to commit destructive, desperate acts. When we create a culture which embraces women as leaders -- alongside men -- we simultaneously foster a society which breaks the shackles of masculinity as well. In short, to be "for women" is in fact the best thing you can do for men.

Anna Quindlen once surmised that "traditional standards of masculinity ask people to live horrible lives. McNamara's book, In an object lesson in how lonely and hard and horrible it can be to conform to traditional standards of masculinity." Yet despite the tragic lessons learned from McNamara's "bifurcation of head and heart," this is the standard that the majority of men have lived, and died, by.

Thankfully, we are moving -- albeit, slowly -- towards a culture which offers alternatives. The post-Vietnam era, and in particular, the women's movement, sought to create a culture which allowed women more opportunities in the public realm while giving men greater room to be a part of the domestic arena. We've seen the consequent gains: for women, it has meant a culture which has increasingly allowed them to not only participate but lead in the public arena; for men, an environment which has gradually accepted greater involvement in the household and family life without compromising manhood.

Yet we need to push the boundaries further.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in the halls of power. As the soon-to-be-released "White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership" has found, women are far from parity in every sector, from business and politics to sports and religion. Projections show that it will take decades to reach even a critical mass in many of these arenas; and the women who do make it into positions of power often do so at great sacrifice.

For men, traditional notions of masculinity are still heavily at play in our society, and these norms come with great expense. When I co-founded Take Our Daughters to Work Day, for example, I learned how deeply men in corporate America were cut off from their families, much to their dismay. Forty percent of men who participated in the program expressed how thankful they were to be able to be a father in the workplace. Perhaps if men were further encouraged to be family men in the office, they would more thoughtfully consider the ramifications of their decisions on families across the nation -- particularly in regard to mortgages, derivatives, and all the other factors which have so deteriorated our economy.

When Robert McNamara left his post in the Defense Department, he was on the verge of a breakdown. I am sure it was not only a deep sense of guilt over his decisions that led to this inner collapse, but the strain of trying to live a bifurcated existence. His resolution was to throw himself into international development, arguing that improving lives was a much better strategy for lasting peace than waging war.

Perhaps McNamara regarded this about-face as a purely intellectual move. Yet as my friend Elizabeth Driehaus once said, "Logic is how we rationalize decisions we have made emotionally." Traditionally, we have allowed women to own their emotions. When we bring more of them into leadership, we will consequently create an environment where greater numbers of men can bring their whole selves to the table as well.