Simon chats with Hunter Johnson, CEO of The Man Cave.

Show Notes

The Mancave is a preventative mental health and emotional intelligence organisation for boys and young men.  You can find out more about The Mancave here:

You can contact Hunter Johnson here:


Simon Dell: So, welcome to the show, Hunter Johnson. How are you?

Hunter Johnson: I’m doing really well this morning, mate. Just came back from two days of running programs with young men, so feeling pretty alive and pretty connected to our work.

Simon Dell: I must say, you’ve got an awesome name. People must get that mixed up with Hunter S. Thompson as well, sometimes. I’m sure you’ve had that in your life.

Hunter Johnson: I have, but believe it or not, that was the inspiration from my parents, from what they tell me. I’m not sure if it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or just the name that they’re attached to, but definitely an influence.

Simon Dell: How old are you? When were you born?

Hunter Johnson: I’m 27, so born in ’91.

Simon Dell: They may have been going through some stuff in the 70s and 80s, weren’t they?

Hunter Johnson: My parents, they’re bold, audacious characters, so I wouldn’t put it past them.

Simon Dell: Interesting. Let’s give everybody a bit of an overview of who you are. We’ve done that in the introduction to this show, but give us your 60-second elevator pitch. I know it’s going to be hard to keep it 60 seconds because you do a lot, but we’ll probably go into it in a little bit more detail as we go forward. Give us that elevator pitch.

Hunter Johnson: I am the CEO of a charity based in Melbourne called The Man Cave which is a preventative mental health and emotional intelligence organization for young men, their parents, and their teachers.

Effectively, what we do is send in young, charismatic, highly trained male role models into high schools who correct the space for young men to take off the mask that they wear every day and start to develop some emotional tools for themselves, to be able to support their mates, but also to be able to support the people in their lives that they care about.

We’ve worked with about 10,000 young people right across the country. We’ve done no direct marketing whatsoever in our four years of operation. We’ve had 150 schools across the world come to us, including some pretty incredible global recognition from The Queen, Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, in the last eight months, which is a statement that I’d never thought I would say, but that really pushed us to the forefront globally in a world where masculinity is in a really interesting place.

For me, personally, just fascinated by behaviour change and why we do what we do. I also love the challenge of applying a business mindset to social problems. And I think right now, particularly for the generation that I’ve grown up in, we’ve got a pretty unique opportunity where doing well financially and doing good socially are no longer mutually-exclusive. I’m really passionate around working in the for-profit but also for-purpose sector.

Simon Dell: There’s a huge amount to talk around, and what I want to do is talk around the emotional intelligence space, which is obviously something you do a lot of work with. I want to take a step back to where you started, because you obviously have a background in psychology but it looks like a lot of your education was in the business space. How did you get yourself into that? What led you into those university subjects?

Hunter Johnson: My dad’s a psychologist, an incredible psychologist. He’s been in the space for a number of years. I’ve grown up with him as a role model that’s always encouraged me to question things, be curious about the world, follow my values. I try to rebel against that for as long as possible before it eventually caught up with me. My mom is an entrepreneur, so she runs an ASX-listed company. It’s actually the second Australian business ever to list on the ASX with a female CEO and a female chair.

I’ve got two wonderful step-parents as well who’ve played a massive role in my life, too. It’s funny. I mentioned I was a pretty cheeky and rebellious teenager, but after getting out of the bubble that I grew up in, and going travelling, experiencing the world, had a major injury on the footy field which shifted my trajectory a bit, I started studying business and psychology at university. I went directly into what both my parents did.

But to be honest, I really struggled at university. I was the kid that would rock up and be like, “Oh, shit. We’ve got an exam today.” Luckily, I’ve had enough of a base level of social intelligence where I could get my way through. Exactly to your point, I learned more from mentors, podcasts, TED talks, YouTube, books, and from lived experience of being in the jungle of running various businesses over the last six years, to actually learn experientially how business in the world works.

Simon Dell: When you say you were cheeky and rebellious, what’s your definition of cheeky and rebellious? My three-year-old is cheeky and rebellious, and he just talks back to you. We’ve now got a threenager living in the house, but some people’s definition of cheeky and rebellious is taking hardcore drugs and stealing cars. Where were you on that scale?

Hunter Johnson: I’m just going to be mindful if my mum’s listening to this podcast. No, you know, I’m very open about my past because it makes who I am today, and particularly in the line of work, working with boys and young men, it’s important to be honest. I was a kid that was sneaking out from home, age 14, 15, going to parties, drinking, smoking, but the best thing for me was actually my rugby; I want to be a professional rugby player.

That kept me pretty fit and healthy. But at the same time, was going to parties, there’d be fights around, and somehow, I’m find myself breaking them up or in between them. I remember one year, I think I was about 15 and I was on a daily report card at school, where after every lesson, I had to take a little report card up to a teacher and they had to mark me with a certain grade.

All my reports would say, “Hunter would be such a good leader if he just stopped talking and mobilized this in something a little more meaningful” Even in one year, I got 27 detentions, including a detention whilst actually on detention.

Simon Dell: That’s going some, because 27, that’s not how many weeks in a school year, is there, or at least half that?

Hunter Johnson: I know, it was tough. Like I said, it was me pushing the boundaries a bit. One of the classic stories with my best mate was it was a hot summer’s day, I saw a fire extinguisher, I thought it’d be funny just to squirt him with the water fire extinguisher. Little did I know that it was actually the foam fire extinguisher and it completely covered him and the whole corridor ended up just being completely up in smokes.

I got Saturday detention and had to deal with mum. But part of all of that, I think, is really important. I mentioned earlier I had a pretty serious broken leg that actually ended up being something called compartment syndrome, which is where the bone punctures in, and it punctures the muscle, and ended up being a metal rod, four screws, two skin grafts, two blood transfusions; but the worst was there’s a high chance that I wouldn’t be able to run again.

That was a big crucible moment for me where I got to press refresh on my identity. I’m very lucky to grow up in a family that encouraged me to always have a plan B, and that’s where I shifted my trajectory a bit, and things really kicked off.

Simon Dell: That’s interesting about that plan B. Is that something you teach people these days, in terms of having a plan B?

Hunter Johnson: I think we live in such a complex time. I think young people, the data behind this, is that a young person right now will work up to 17 different jobs in their lifetime and have five different career changes. How do you equip young people for a world of work which we have largely no idea what it’ll look like?

Whether it’s the automation of jobs, globalization, whether it’s the casual workforce. I think, for me, the art for a lot of these young people, if I’m speaking to them about careers, is actually to think like an entrepreneur. Not necessarily to be one, but to pick up the attributes, the critical thinking, the negotiation, the understanding of how things work, and then to apply that on a given context, whether that’s starting a business or working inside of the business.

Also, the way that, in my context, professional sports working, guys would probably get to in and around 30 and then they’ll have to jump ship and find out who they are outside of the identity that they’ve created for themselves in a professional sporting context.

Simon Dell: It’s interesting you bring up that concept of a plan B. I heard Tim Ferriss, I think he was interviewing Jim Collins. I might be right and I might be wrong whether it was them, that they were talking about not having a plan B, about deliberately not having a plan B, because if you do have a plan B, that won’t make you committed to plan A, if that makes sense.

Again, it may be that it wasn’t Jim Collins that was saying that, but I definitely remember listening to that. When you finish university, and obviously, through university, it’s clear that you were doing a lot of volunteering, a lot of helping out. When day one of university finished, what were you sitting there thinking? What were your plans for that point?

Hunter Johnson: It’s an interesting question. I’ve actually got about three subjects to go for my business and psychology degree. I ended up deferring for about six years. It was originally going to be a six-month sabbatical working with Jan Owen down at the Foundation for Young Australians, and then unbelievably, it has made a massive impact on my life.

That six months very quickly turned into six years as I got thrown in the deep end of business, of facilitation, of partnerships, and program delivery. And through that, I was very fortunate to work with a number of organizations that were really working at the front line of social change.

The thing that particularly stood out to me was this real shift of the philanthropic sector, particularly the next generation of wealth inheritors, those under the age of 40 who will inherit a significant amount of wealth, their collaboration with entrepreneurs that have a social or an environmental purpose behind their business, and the idea to stay connected and collaborated, that would fast track social change in any government or any corporation.

And so, that was the thing that seduced me out of my degree, which I felt like I was just treading water, and sitting in lectures which were 150 PowerPoint slides in a row with someone who didn’t really want to be there delivering the information. Much to my grandparents and particularly my mother’s demise, I’ve still got a few subjects to go.

To be honest, with the way that education is moving globally and how fast we can gain access to information, I’m not sure if I will go back to complete it. I guess that talks to the first day out of university was really just a six-month sabbatical, and here I am six years later, pretty fortunate to be running an incredible charity.

Simon Dell: You did some stuff in asset management and that kind of thing. That sort of seemed like that was a two-year stint. Was that you going into there and going, “Right, I want to do something proper with my business degree or my business background here”, and then not really enjoying that, or is that something you’re still interested in?

Hunter Johnson: I think finance is one of the most important mobilizers for social change. For me, mentoring has played an incredibly important role, and I’ve been fortunate to work with and under some exceptional leaders who have really pushed me to the front to learn. Part of that is exposure to different financial markets and institutions.

As I mentioned earlier, incredibly fascinated by the world of impact investing and social investment where people can invest into a certain opportunity that would bring up not only a financial return, but one that has social or environmental benefits as well.

For me, that stage of my career, I kind of describe it as discovery mode, where I just said yes to a whole range of things and started to gain momentum in each of those areas. And as I started to discover where my unique strengths were, I would then say no to given opportunities until I could hyper focus somewhere I was seeing the most return on investment for my time and my impact.

Simon Dell: Let’s talk about The Man Cave. There’s three core sections I want to talk about here. The first one is the brand. When you sat down and you went, “I want to do something”, where did that come from? Was that a light bulb moment, or was that a work over time? How did you come up with the name? Was it all done in the back of a big coaster in the pub? How did all that come about?

Hunter Johnson: It’s funny. I was working with an advertising agency recently and we had to do a mini pitch. One of the guys in the advertising agency said, “Are you sure it should be called The Man Cave?” And he was like, “It doesn’t really seem like that’s what you guys do.” And I just said to him, “Well, mate, if it was called The Feelings Cave, I don’t reckon we’d be getting too many young men attending.” He was like, “Ah, yes. Good point.”

I think within that, the origin of it started when I was running an incubator program called Young Social Pioneers which brings together the top social entrepreneurs under the age of 30. We’d bring them together all across Australia, pull apart their business models, put them back together and help them pitch to investors, philanthropists, and funders. Whilst all that was going on, I was exposed to some pretty incredible people who were just inspiring to be around.

On the other side, I’d grown up in a pretty hyper-masculine environment, which at times I loved, and just the boys culture, and being around the camaraderie, but also at times, I felt pretty trapped by. I often didn’t have the language to articulate that when I was younger, but as I got older, I recognized that a lot of my mates would open up to me or to other mates after they’re a couple of beers deep or something tragic had happened, and then that’d open up for a bit, and then shut down.

Just using what I gained from my psychology degree and seeing that masculinity was in a pretty interesting position. We know that one in five young people will experience anxiety and depression before they’re 18. We also know that suicide is the leading cause of death for young men under the age of 25. We see one woman killed every week from a result of male-perpetrated domestic violence.

A lot of the systems that we have, particularly in Australia, are focused around crisis management and Band-Aid solutions, and little working at the preventative. And if you look at the common denominator of all that, it’s often boys who haven’t had the space to develop the emotional language, whether they’ve had the permission to develop that, or even the space in their lives to open up and start talking about some of that stuff.

And so, there are a few men in my life who I’d seen struggle with depression, with violence, with addiction, and a few suicides as we grow up as well. Again, with my best mate at the time, we just thought this was largely preventable. We would take days off our respective jobs about five years ago, drive out into the country and run a program for young boys, just giving them the space to open up.

From there, after the first few weeks, we’re like, “Jeez, we probably should name this thing. What’s a place that blokes end up going to, just their space?” That’s where the origin of The Man Cave came from.

Simon Dell: I was going to say, it was probably a nightmare trying to get a domain for that.

Hunter Johnson: Yeah. Well, it’s fine. The website is For .com, .au, .org, it was all taken. And it’s funny; you type in ‘man cave’ now, and it’s pretty interesting, the results that originally came up. Fortunately, our brand has got growing pretty quickly now with an organic SEO. We do pop up there pretty quickly, but interesting, what originally came up.

Simon Dell: When you went and then sort of built that brand and everything, did you work with an ad agency there, or was that just a local designer? How did that all sort of come about?

Hunter Johnson: Originally, it was from a friend of a friend who just helped us whip up a basic brand kit and website. When things started to gain a bit of momentum, I reached out to another friend and said, “Do you know any agencies that would be interested in supporting us? We’re a not-for-profit.”

And they said, “Yeah, there’s this organization who I think would be able to help you out. Can’t promise anything.” So, I called, emailed them, set up a meeting in Collingwood, and walked into the most stunning offices. It literally looked like MoMA in New York.

I sat down, shared why we do the work, the impact it’s having, and what we’re out to achieve. The founder said, “Listen, love what you guys do. What’s your budget?” I gave them a very blank stare and put up the number zero. He said, “That’s okay.” And he pointed to the corner, and he said, “See those two teenagers over there?” I said, “Yes.”

He goes, “They’re our two kids and this is our bid for making the world a better place for them.” To this day, it’s been an unbelievable digital studio called Raft Studio who have been incredibly generous for us over the last three years of building our brand and our website. We’ve just got an incredible relationship with them. That’s the origins, and we love their work.

Simon Dell: You mentioned you’ve not done any direct marketing. How did you grow? Word of mouth obviously has sustained you through the things you’re doing because everything you’re doing is fantastic and people are talking about you. But were there any other things that you’ve done to get your name out there?

Hunter Johnson: Yeah. I think for us, it’s not around… I guess the other distinction here is between branding and marketing. And for us, the brand component that came was from doing a really good job. Whilst we were building The Man Cave in its original years, we were still working at our respective jobs, my founder and I.

And then as it started to gain momentum, we started to tell really powerful stories to our close network on the various social media channels that we have, and then we started to get invited to do a lot of keynote talks. Masculinity, as I mentioned, in this period of flux where it’s a really sensitive topic, but also not many people working at preventing them.

In those original keynote discussions, they made an impact which then brought us more leads, more leads, and then more leads. From there, the media jumped on board, and since then, I put it down to the integrity of our work, the professionalism of our team, the fact that we tell powerful stories, and we’re really focused on relationship management.

For us, a very guiding principle is two-fold: relationship before transaction with anyone that we work with, and one of our organizational values is to leave it better than we found it. So, that goes to the schools that work with the young men, or the parents, the teachers that we also work with.

Simon Dell: Apologies if this sounds like a criticism, but do you think it’s sustainable for you to grow this and continue to grow this just on word of mouth alone, or do you think you’re going to need, at some point, to sort of go, “You know what? We will need to invest something somewhere along the line in terms of growth.”

Hunter Johnson: I absolutely think so. I think it’s depending what the intention of the marketing is, if it’s conversion of leads or if it’s gaining reach and entering into public consciousness. As we know, everyone is on their phones or on social media. So, how do we fight for the attention of the respective people who we want to influence? For us, it’s two-fold, because we’re an organization that exists to serve young men, however, the key decision makers of those young men are their parents, their teachers, their principals, et cetera. It’s an interesting nuance in our communication.

But to your question, I definitely think we will be moving to that point in time. We have a very strong organic lead flow that comes through. For us as well, we’re not after necessarily a vanity metric of working with a million young men by this day. We’re actually more focused on impact first and working with communities that have multiple touch points, and to empower that community, opposed to just scaling for scaling sake.

Simon Dell: Let’s talk about the core things that you do. Probably, the two things I want to tackle here, because hopefully, people that are listening understand the importance of these two things. What I’d like to do is perhaps relate this to…

I realized that a majority of the work that you do is with young men, but I’d like to think about this from a perspective of a male business owner or a male leader, somehow who is kind of under that pressure every day, who might have a small company, might have a big company, whatever it is.

The two areas I want to ask you about is, number one, to help people understand what the concept of emotional intelligence is. And the second thing is to understand how to deal with teenagers in social media, which is two completely different questions. Let’s concentrate on the emotional intelligence ones first. What’s your definition of emotional intelligence?

Hunter Johnson: I think the other thing which I’ll add to give this a premise, is we don’t prescribe to be parenting experts, but what we can be is an insight and a conduit into the lives of young men. I think we work in a very interesting intersection. We’re working in schools. We get the language and the world of these young men but also can speak the language of their key decision makers in their lives. I think that’s an important distinction to make.

For me, personally, emotional intelligence is obviously a buzzword that goes around. But in simple terms, it’s the capacity to be aware of, and control, and express our emotions, and to be able to read social situations, to be able to self-regulate ourselves, and decide where the level of self-awareness, how we’re feeling, and how we want to engage with a context in front of us.

There’s a classic quote from Daniel Goleman who talks about a lot of CEOs are hired on their IQ, but actually fired for their EQ. With the changing working conditions, we’ve definitely seen a shift where leaders need to step into the buzzwords that we hear all around, around being more vulnerable, being more authentic, being more genuine.

I think the certain models of working context was very hierarchical. And if you look at the developmental psychology and also the organizational psychology that has led us to this point in time, often, our working structures have been a direct reflection of our society’s consciousness.

Now, we’re in a very interesting time where organizations are much more flatter, there’s much more trust, much more nimble which requires leaders to be able to be much more emotionally and socially aware and available for their employees.

Simon Dell: You mentioned Daniel Goleman there. His book Emotional Intelligence I bought six months ago, and it’s still sitting in my to-read pile, which is an ever-growing pile of business books, and science fiction, and that kind of thing. I bought it simply because I’d seen it recommended in so many different places. I presume you’ve read that, and would recommend that to people?

Hunter Johnson: Yeah. I think it’s a great work. I think the original book actually came out in 1991 from Goleman, so it’s definitely been around for a number of years. I think my memory, might fade me here but the two pioneering actual researchers before that was a guy called Salovey and a guy called Mayer, and then Daniel Goleman took that to the mainstream.

There’s obviously a vast array of books on EQ and dealing with emotions, and also a number of courses around the personal development world that fit into that. I think it’s worthwhile for anything if you’re interested in the space to start with a book like that just to give you the foundational knowledge. But to your point, I’m very mindful that everyone’s reading less than podcast listeners is radically exploding.

In regards to Tim Ferriss that we mentioned earlier, one of the things that he mentioned which really resonates with me is, instead of just-in-case reading where you’re like, “Oh, get that book just in case I ever need that knowledge”, actually flipping that to just-in-time reading where you need it, it’s relevant, you’re in it, it’s emotionally-charged for you, so you devour that book because you need it at that moment. I think that’s a pretty simple thing that I definitely use for my reading at the moment.

Simon Dell: I gave up on a book a couple of days ago. It was Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry I think is the title. I’m a big science fiction nerd, and I write a lot of science fiction, so I kind of went, “I want to know more about astrophysics.” And I got a third of the way and went, “You know what? I just don’t care about astrophysics. Forget it.”

Hunter Johnson: There’s a guilt in there, right? There’s a moral guilt. You’re like, “Should I just finish this?” And it’s like, “Actually, no. I don’t find this enjoyable.”

Simon Dell: I think there’s a lot of people who guilt themselves into sitting through books, and films, and TV shows that they don’t… I mean, as I say, science fiction and end of the world stuff, that’s where I get really excited, but even I’ve given up on The Walking Dead now. “I don’t care what happens to these people, or the zombies, or anything. I got better things to do with my time.”

Interestingly, I then jumped into, which I am enjoying much more and I will finish, is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’ve been told to read by many people. I’m only three or four chapters in, but that’s good so far.

Hunter Johnson: Nice.

Simon Dell: We talk about emotional intelligence, give us some examples about, if you’re a business leader, if you’re a business owner or that kind of thing, just some things that you would recommend that people can do to improve that, just little things on a day-to-day basis.

Hunter Johnson: One of the things that we have bought into our organizational culture which has been fundamentally incredible for our camaraderie, our morale, and just the buy in from our staff, is a very simple tool called a check-in.

Before every day, we get our staff to sit down in small teams and check in for two minutes around how they’re doing. The role is for literally the group to sit there and just listen. The person has the full two minutes if they just want to say whatever is going on in their mind. It will then move onto the next person, the next person, the next person.

After that, everyone completely drops into the space. We know that with vulnerability, it actually builds deeper connection, and intimacy, and loyalty. But also, it allows our staff to bring their full self to work and recognize that we are human beings, there’s stuff going on in our lives, and instead of us just sitting away, typing at our computer, not saying hellos to each other in the morning, we actually bring much more of a deeper level of connection to kick off the day.

The second thing which we’ve actually introduced which, again, has been very conducive of creating a high-performance culture for us is the notion of clearing. Each day, after we do the check-in, we’ll provide a space for our staff members to clear something.

That can be something like, “Hey, listen, I’ve got a couple of meetings today and I’ve got a call in one of those meetings, so I just want to bring that to your attention that I will need to duck out during this.”

Another example of a clearing can be, with a fellow staff member, where if there’s something that’s been nagging on our consciousness, where we can say, “Hey, listen, Joel, you said you’d do this, and actually, you haven’t done this, and it’s actually frustrating me. I actually want to take responsibility for the fact that I haven’t communicated this to you early enough. Going forward, I want to be in communication to check in with you to see if there’s any support I can give you, because I’m working towards a deadline.”

The powerful thing about that is that each person who makes the clearing takes responsibility for what’s there for them to take responsibility for. It also creates a space where there’s no morality, where people aren’t good, or bad, or right, or wrong, or be shamed. But actually, they can put everything on the table. They can name the unsaid and we can collectively deal with it as a team.

Simon Dell: That’s massively interesting. Again, you probably would’ve heard this, you may have read the book as well, but Ray Dalio’s Principles which he talks about radical transparency in his organization. Is that the same thing or slightly different? Where does that fit with that?

Hunter Johnson: I’ve read the book. I’m a big fan of Ray. Unfortunately, we’re a charity, so we don’t have all the $180 billion of assets to instil the guiding principles that Ray has, but that’s definitely been an influence. Coming back to what we said at the beginning of this conversation, applying a business lens to some social problems means that we need to have a high-performing culture.

The guys or the staff members that I have at my organization could all be working for the big four or some of the biggest marketing agencies in the world, but I’ve managed to pull them by their values to work for us and pay them a decent salary.

Part of that is actually providing them, I believe, it’s my responsibility, of a personal and professional path of growth, which means working in a high-performance culture, which can be uncomfortable. Because being healthily challenged and feeling safe in that challenge can be uncomfortable, but we know the benefits on the other side when we reach those outcomes are definitely worth it.

Simon Dell: That has to come from the top-down, doesn’t it? If you’re in an organization where you go, “You know what? I’d really like to tell the CEO what I think of him.” You’ve kind of got to be in an organization that supports that.

Hunter Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. If we don’t, particularly working in an Australian context where we’re very good at tall poppy syndrome, we cut people down if they they’re any better than us.

The other thing is I think fish rot from the head. If I’m not living, walking, breathing, role modelling these examples, then I’m a complete hypocrite. I think particularly working in an organization that values emotional intelligence and hopefully lives it, too, they’re very quick to detect bullshit from me.

Part of my volition as a leader is that I need to be accountable for that. And if that means owning and being responsible for the things that I haven’t shown up in, then I’ll completely do that. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s the only thing that’s going to continue to boost down momentum going forward.

Simon Dell: Let’s just touch on the other question that I had there about teenagers and social media. Again, I mean, I know we’re slightly diverging off the whole business and marketing thing, but I think this is such a challenging time for both social media and both teenagers.

But specifically, men in social media, and it’s interesting, I’ll preface your response by something I read the other day, The Betoota Advocate which I’m sure you’ve read before, that bastion of truth and honesty out there. But they were making a joke about how Instagram had replaced, for teenagers and tradies, or teenage boys and tradies around Australia, that Instagram had replaced Zoo Magazine as the go-to place for girls in bikinis and things like that.

Give us your opinion on that. I’m interested in understanding, for all the parents out there that have got teenagers using social media, some of the things that you suggest, and advice, and observe.

Hunter Johnson: We’ve got a couple million year old brain that is suddenly dealing with, for teenagers, not only the pressures of wanting to belong and fit in with the tribe, of increased homework and schoolwork pressure. Education is continually levelling up for young people. They now have more extracurricular activities than ever before, and the politics of being in a schoolyard environment…

And if you flush back to being a teenager, being a teenager is about survival. You’ve got to work out who you need to be and you play those cards. You put your mask on every day, you put your armour on, and then you just go. And if you’re a teenage boy, chances are you’re living in a culture of banter where you’re just shooting from the hip, very worried about someone finding out, or you stepping out of the crowd and people identifying you for that.

The really interesting thing about Australian culture, is I mentioned earlier, we’ve got tall poppy syndrome. If anyone steps up and tries to be a leader, particularly with teenagers, they’ll be cut down. I was at a school yesterday. This kid was playing for Australia in under 16 soccer and his mates were like, “Oh, he plays for Australia.” And he’s like, “No, I don’t.”

I’m like, “Mate, did you actually play for Australia?” And he goes, “No.” His mate’s like, “Yes, he does. He just doesn’t want to admit it.” I’m like, “Hey, this is really interesting. Let’s talk about this.” Because the reality is, if we shy away from our unique gifts and talents, then we actually limit our ability to step into that potential.

Actually, you have a choice how you sharpen this. More importantly, your mates have a choice how they celebrate you or they pull you down. We had a beautiful conversation around what’s the impact of living into this because we also know at the other end of the spectrum, is if you’re at the bottom of the food chain, you’ll hear about it, too.

So, what that creates is a culture of mediocrity where people sit in the middle, particularly our teenagers, too scared to reach their potential. It’s a similar thing. You put your hand up in class, and you get the answer wrong, what happens? Everyone laughs at you. What do you learn? Don’t put your hand up in class.

And a lot of these young men don’t question their social conditioning, and particularly that’s what we do in our programs. It’s giving the opportunity to step back and reflect on the rules that they’ve inherited, that they police each other on, that they validate each other on, and that they’re conditioned by.

I think within a social media context, the fact that they now have this device with them, where the politics of the schoolyard come home with them, whether it’s Snapchat, and the pressures associated with a platform like Snapchat where they have to continue their streaks, the amount of times they can Snapchat someone in a row, and you have these kids that have 6,000 day records. It’s actually quite incredible.

But also, it puts the pressure on them to continue using the device. We’ve got young people who are validating their self-worth and their identity based on the number of likes or followers they have, or the notifications they’re getting. And then there’s the curating of this perfect lifestyle and image where young people get FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, for not being somewhere.

And so, there’s this continual pressure to fit in. And when you look, again, coming back to the teenage brain, it’s emotionally developing, it’s socially developing and growing, but it’s also just wanting to fit in and survive. And by constantly feeling this need that I’m not a part of the group, puts this unbelievable pressure on it.

And we only need to look at these rates, increasing rates of anxiety and depression to see the impact that it’s having. The other really interesting thing in this is the role that addiction plays. We know that young people are what we call digital natives. There’s a really fascinating book by an author called Johann Hari. He’s written two books that have really stood out to me among a few others, but the first is Lost Connections, and the second is Chasing the Scream.

Chasing the Scream is around addiction, and he talks about this experiment where they put a rat in an enclosure and they gave the rat two water options, one with a sterile water, the other laced with heroin, and they monitor the rat for 30 days to see what would happen. As we can expect, the rat tests each water, eventually gets hooked on the heroin, and in 30 days becomes addicted and kills itself.

The conclusion that was drawn is heroin is addictive, is a bad drug we should not like. As the experiment evolved, they realized that if they put more rats into that enclosure and still had the two options of water and one interlaced with heroin, that no one rat got addicted to the heroin.

The camaraderie, the community, and the connection that was experienced overpowered the addiction. And so, you only need to look at how we’ve constructed our lives. But particularly for our young people, or our classrooms, our bedrooms, our work offices, they’re effectively a very, very similar environment to the same as those rats. We know that these young people are more disconnected but also more connected than ever before.

On top of that, we’re really lacking civic engagement. It used to be you go to the town hall, you go to the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the RSL club, somewhere where community was thriving. Now, a lot of people don’t know their neighbours, or we’re scared, or we’re dissected from our families and our communities.

And we know particularly when young people are 12, 13, 14, they break away from their parents and they seek mentoring and guidance elsewhere to get those lessons. That used to be from a village or the community, but now it’s from Netflix. Now, from it’s Instagram. Now, it’s from Snapchat. This is the model and the belief system that they inherit.

That’s a landscape of the challenges that these young people face. And I think the most important thing that I found is, parents actually wanting to be friends with their kids as opposed to being parents is a really interesting distinction. I think we need to bring back parents who step powerfully into the parent role and don’t have their children running their household.

The second is explaining the impact of their devices on them emotionally, how it impacts their brand, how it has a very similar effect with the serotonin and dopamine chemicals that get released to having crack cocaine. And also, giving them a choice to cocreate the rules, saying, “If this is going to work for you, how can we do this? And I’m going to lead this process because I’m a parent, but I want to make an agreement with you.”

If that trust is broken, you’re using that as a teachable moment on how to rebuild trust in the home but also in other relationships.

Simon Dell: Fantastic advice. To be honest with you, we could talk about this all day, but I’m sure you’ve got other things to do today. A couple of other questions I want to ask before we wind up.

You’ve mentioned a few people, but I just want to get an idea about, and perhaps we can combine these into one, but the first question was people that you’ve met that really impressed you and had an effect on you. The second thing was books that you’ve read or you would recommend for people who want to find out more about this.

Hunter Johnson: I’ve got a lot.

Simon Dell: It’s like you’ve got an Oscar’s speech here. You didn’t think you were going to win, Hunter, and you have, and now you’ve got to make a speech thanking all of them.

Hunter Johnson: I got an amazing piece of advice from a mentor once around relationships and people. He said it’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s who wakes up thinking about you. How do you remain front of mind for key people in your life that really make an impact in your life?

I think that has definitely influenced how I think about this. I’ve got a bit of recency bias. I caught up with an amazing friend last night, Yassmin Abdel-Magied who is an incredible activist, feminist, Young Australian Muslim of the Year who now lives over in London. She’s made a massive impact on my life.

Simon Dell: She’s made a fair impact on quite a few people’s lives in the couple of years, hasn’t she?

Hunter Johnson: I agree. What I respect outside of the drama that ensues is the resilience that she’s shown. I think it’s pretty inspiring, someone that holds their belief systems close to their heart, and someone who has, I’ve seen personally, work on the front line with many young people, the impact that she’s made.

Yassmin has been an unbelievable role model for many young women of colour. Jan Owen was a massive influence, the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians. The chair of our Man Cave Board, Ian Ward-Ambler who is ex-Goldman Sachs, done lot of work in violence against women and indigenous land councils.

Honestly, my parents have been phenomenal. My dad, that’s been a relationship that I’ve grown up into, and I think as I increasingly mature, I’m exceptionally grateful for the moments where I, as a teenage boy, I try to find problems with. But as I grow up, I’ve really just got the value and also how tough it is to be a parent. I’ve really got that. I love my mom dearly. She’s obviously been an incredible role model for me, too.

Simon Dell: Are there some books, one or two, that you can recommend? You’ve already mentioned a couple as we speak.

Hunter Johnson: Just to revisit, I think Principles is a phenomenal book.

Simon Dell: I’m sorry to interrupt you there. I hated that book. I’ll tell you why, because I read it, and I went… And this is when I hated it pretty much every word I read all the way through, and I thought I should just stop and put it down, and I’m going, I can’t because I want to see if it gets better or if I want to see if I understand.

I’m the only person that I’ve ever met that I didn’t like it. I think I didn’t like it just because of Dalio’s style, and not necessarily what he was saying, but I find the way that he writes to be intensely jarring. That’s maybe because I’m a writer myself, but anyway, I digress. Keep going, sorry.

Hunter Johnson: No, I loved it. For me, it’s like a bite-sized chunk where I could just dip into when I wanted. The thing that fascinated me about that book was that it was consistently distilled down life lessons that have been tried and tested over time.

For me, that was obviously a good book but I’m mindful about everyone else who talks about that book. A massive book for me actually was a book called True North, which is a book on authentic leadership, which takes you through a process, gives you the content and then there are certain self-awareness questions to answer around your own authentic leadership style.

That was a fundamental book for me to really set up who I am, what do I stand for, who inspires me, what it is about those people. I mentioned Lost Connections by Johann Hari. I think it’s absolutely non-negotiable reading for, particularly parents, but also just for anyone who cares about mental health.

I actually just finished the Patagonia book Let My People Go Surfing which is a billion-dollar company, and they describe themselves as accidental billionaires. But the interesting thing for me in a world where startups are around getting that unicorn status or above as quick as possible, Patagonia’s been a business that’s been in operation for 67 years.

Despite economic downturns, it’s continued to thrive and use their status as one of the big companies in the world to be an activist for a better world. They go through their marketing philosophy, their product philosophy, their individual organizational values, the distribution philosophy. For me, it just shows that the substantial truth if you do it consistently over time tends to win.

Simon Dell: Fantastic. Last couple of questions. What’s on the schedule for you for the rest of 2019? Anything sort of significant that’s happening for you that you’ve got planned?

Hunter Johnson: Yeah. The Man Cave is growing at a pretty incredible rate. We’re growing our team and really trying to find the scalable model that keeps the integrity of the program whilst increases the quality of what we deliver to get to those communities across the world that need it most. That’s our core focus.

We’re also working on a new natural body care range for young men. It’s kind of like Lynx but with a social purpose. 50% of our profits support The Man Cave in low social economic communities. We’re at sample stage with that. We brought on board some unbelievable people from best practice globally.

They come on board with everything from the marketing all the way to the product design, so launching that will be really exciting. On a personal level, in the next few months, I’m best man at two of my best mate’s weddings.

Simon Dell: Writing a speech isn’t going to be an issue, is it, really?

Hunter Johnson: I think there’s always the added pressure of wanting to do a good job for them, but part of that actually is a really incredible thing. I’m quite passionate about reshaping traditional bucks parties around the classic get as pissed as possible, let’s embarrass the buck and get some strippers around, to actually creating a real meaningful right-of-passage that can send our mates off into their marriage, have an unbelievable experience, something that really sets them on the right trajectory.

With one of my mates, there’s nine of us who are flying over to London, going to Amsterdam, and then to Greece. We’ve curated this whole unbelievable experience that will do, hopefully, exactly that for our mate who’s getting married.

Simon Dell: I was going to say, you just said no strippers, and then you said Amsterdam.

Hunter Johnson: Oh, no. We’re intentional about where we are going.

Simon Dell: I’ll trust you on that one there. I was going to say, I’ll give you my best man’s speech tip because I’ve got to say, and I know you’ve done shit like more public speaking than I have, but one of the things I always find breaks the ice really well at the start of a best man’s speech is do a big interactive quiz with the whole room about the bride and the groom.

And you have yourself a bottle of champagne as a prize or something like that, and you get everybody to stand up. You give them A or B answers, and they have to move to the side of the room. It’s amazing how as soon as you interject a bit of interaction and a bit of engagement with a speech like that, all of a sudden, you get such a better return. You must see that doing normal speeches as well.

Hunter Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. Amazing idea, by the way. I’ll definitely think about that, but a lot of my role is working with groups, facilitating groups from 30 to 2,000 on stage. One of the things I’m passionate about, is instead of just speaking out, people speaking with people and really working with what’s in the room. Obviously, a very good reminder to get out of my head and get back into my heart for this speech.

Simon Dell: Last question. If people want to get a hold of you, if they want to ask you a question, if they want you to speak at one of their events, what’s the best way of getting in contact with you?

Hunter Johnson: Beautiful. On LinkedIn, Hunter Johnson is my name, just ‘Hunter Johnson The Man Cave’, it should come up. I’m on Twitter @HunterJohnson91. The Man Cave web address is If you want to email us, [email protected].

Simon Dell: Perfect. Mate, thank you very much for your time. You’re doing some amazing work out there, and I hope many people get to see you up in speaking, or one of your team doing a session. Good luck with everything for 2019 and thank you for being on the show.

Hunter Johnson: Beautiful. Thanks for the opportunity, Simon.


For more transcriptions of the Simon Dell Show click here: Marketing Podcasts.

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