The Masquerade Ball Is Over©

Do you ever feel exhausted? Do other people tell you that they are worn out? There is a very good reason for the exhausted state of our culture, and it is not because we are all busy. The cause of this exhaustion is the masks we wear.  Masks are heavy, and it is physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting to put on and wear a mask every day – and the more we are faking it, the heavier the mask becomes. These masks are the resting place or storage locker for all of the ways that we fake it, cover up or pretend in our personal and professional lives.

Sadly, we have accepted an old story that leaders are stoic, unemotional and detached, and we continue to perpetuate the fallacy that leadership strength equates to putting on a good face or never letting anyone see you sweat. This fallacy has created a generation of “strong” leaders that often have been unable to accomplish their stated goal of engaging and inspiring a committed team. The reason for this failure is simple – leaders that pretend and wear masks prevent team members from connecting with them, and it is these missing connections (and missing trust and relationships) that keep teams from zealously charging into execution and impact.

Generations of potential leaders have been handed (and then have accepted) a leadership message and model that says that strong and tough is the way to lead. This model is reinforced in many ways every day in the workplace, at home, at school and in the media. Even worse, the model has been blindly accepted and without questioning whether it is working or will ever work. But the verdict is in – it does not work and it is not the way to engage a committed team (what Seth Godin would call a tribe of raving fans).

Some time ago, I was working with a business owner who had been going through some difficult times in her personal life. After she had been dealing with the terminal illness of her father (which had taken her regularly away from the business and certainly distracted her) for a long time, her father eventually passed away. She told me that she was struggling with the emotions surrounding her father’s death—a perfectly natural response, right? Just what you would expect any reasonable person to experience, right? Yet this business owner believed that she could not show her emotions at work or even let her team members know that she was experiencing any of her emotions surrounding her father’s death. Talk about a giant mask – she was pretending that the death of her father did not impact her.

Based upon this always-in-control persona, just imagine what her team members might conclude or assume by asking this question: What kind of person does not experience emotions after her father’s death? The list is long and not terribly kind – uncaring, cold, stoic, disinterested, mean, unloving, etc. This situation exemplifies one of the big issues with wearing a mask – people will judge you and make assumptions about you no matter what! Do you want to be judged for who you really are (your authentic self) OR based upon who you pretend to be? Either way, people will be watching and making judgments and assessments, but you have the choice to decide what they are basing those judgments and assessments on.

Back to our business owner. When I suggested that she should be more open to letting her team members see her emotions, she pushed back by saying that it would not help her as a leader to be “bawling her eyes out in front of her team.” Note what happened: I invited her to be more authentic as a leader, but she took it to the far extreme, to a form of emotional behavior that would not be helpful or productive in any business environment. Like many leaders, she was confusing authenticity with a breakdown. I was not suggesting that she should come into the office and blubber in front of her team, but she went there mentally in order to justify her denying or covering up her emotions.

Which would you rather see in a leader – someone who seems never to be bothered by anything OR someone that acknowledges their feelings, emotions and states of mind like other people? More importantly, which type of person do you trust more – the person that always seems to be in control OR the person that shows up authentic and human (imperfections and all)?

That is the core of it after all – TRUST! You cannot – I repeat CANNOT – lead without being trusted by those following you. Yet, many leaders still fail to ever consider or commit to the types of critical thinking, behavior and actions that create, build and nurture trust. These foundational ways of building trust include authenticity, integrity, alignment (actions matching words) and transparency. Conversely, absence of these trust-builders or acting in direct opposition to them sends a loud and clear message: You cannot trust me. Today’s ever-present inauthentic leader essentially communicates the following message to those he or she seeks to lead: I am not willing to let you know me, understand me or support me, but I want you to trust me.

Leaders today often assume trust and expect to be followed, yet never take personal responsibility – not only for their leadership decisions and actions, but also for their conscious choices that determine who and how they will be as a leader and whether they will  earn trust, nurture relationships and be worthy of being followed. These actions and choices are at the heart of what it means to be an awake leader, whether of an organization, a team or your own life. Our business and personal worlds are in chaos, but we do not need a superhero – we need more authentic leaders. Will YOU be one of these conscious leaders that will choose to be different, lead different and create different?

As an authentic leader myself, I cannot pretend that I have always lived and led in this conscious way. Like many inauthentic leaders, I was off course as a leader and did not even know it. People looked up to me (in my business, in my community, in my network and in my family), but I was a fake. Not only was I wearing many diverse and manipulating masks, but I had no awareness that I was doing it (certainly not consciously). I was doing what everyone else did, and I had created perceived success in my business and other ventures.  My life was one grand masquerade party, where I was the lively host and everyone wanted to be a part of the party. Well, not quite everyone. There were people who saw through my many masks, and when they chose not to “follow,” I dismissed them as people who were jealous and simply did not get it. My ego was so out of control, yet it masked a wounded man who was trying to survive internal conflict and pain. Yet I thought I could not let anyone else see those truths about me. If I let them see me, they would know who I really was (imperfect and human) and ultimately they could (and I believed certainly would) reject me.

There it is – the main obstacle to authentic leadership – the fear that people will not like you or will reject you. Thus, the essential ingredients for taking off your masks are courage and the knowledge that doing so is the only way to build trust, since people can only trust who you really are. People cannot and will not trust who you pretend to be.

My next book is currently in publication, and it’s not a coincidence that authentic and conscious leadership is the theme. The book is titled Unmasked: Let Go of Who You’re “Supposed” to Be & Unleash Your True Leader, and it takes a deep dive into living and leading as an authentic, aware and accountable leader. I’ll continue to share parts of the book with you in this blog, and I hope you’ll take a look in the mirror to see what masks you’re wearing, decide to shed the masks and step into your authentic self and leader. The truth is that the masquerade ball is not over, and it will continue to go on so long as people choose to live and lead from behind their masks. However, YOU have the choice to leave the ball and to step out into the light – your own light – by choosing to live and lead as who you really are … Unmasked!


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