Off with the Leadership Mask

kitchen office space

I spend a great deal of time thinking about leadership. Specifically how it ping-pongs from rewarding and inspiring, to terrible and deflating, often within the same hour.

For me, the past year has illuminated the wonderful and awful importance of being an authentic leader. The kind of leader that takes their mask off to be a whole, vulnerable person.

There’s an unspoken lie floating around that leaders need to have it all figured out. That we need to keep it together so everyone else can keep it together. Sure, we need to bring steadiness to the storm. But sometimes you gotta read the room. 

Rewind to late-May 2020…

We were months into what we thought would be a two-month pandemic, my organization had just gone through a staff reduction and our country was literally ablaze as we tackled racial injustice with a fervor our generation hadn’t before seen.

On top of this, my dad had been alone in the hospital for weeks, my aunt just passed away from an aggressive cancer, my friends and family in the Twin Cities were concerned for their safety and I could neither hug nor be physically present for my people in pain.

Plus, I was mere months from the ink drying on my divorce papers and trying to navigate my new emotional space. As much as I hugged my dog, he didn’t hug back. Each day I experienced new definitions of the word “alone.” It took all my energy to get out of bed, throw on some mascara and go to work – aka my kitchen counter. 

Focusing on work – let alone finding creative ways to drive revenue, keep staff motivated and donors engaged – was tough to say the least. 

If I was feeling this weight, I can only assume my team felt it, too. On top of societal and workplace heaviness, they inevitably balanced varying loads of unspoken personal heaviness on their shoulders. 

I rallied the energy to log onto my computer and lead the patchwork of faces in a morning staff meeting. I could have jumped onto that meeting with my leadership mask and said, “Alright! New week! Let’s crush it!” But that’s not how I felt. I didn’t want to fake it. I felt like crap, and feigning this cheerleader enthusiasm would make it worse. I couldn’t afford the energetic cost of being inauthentic.

Instead, I said, “I don’t know about you, but everything feels really hard right now.”

Is there a virtual equivalent of a collective sigh? Because I felt it. People opened up about their challenges, fears and grief. Setting the tone of vulnerability gave others permission to share things on their minds and built deeper trust within our team. 

Taking off the mask

I’ve watched egos get in the way of true leadership. Clinging tightly to an image you have of yourself and how you want others to see you, instead of letting go and being a more honest version of yourself – the messy, fumbly, emotionally clumsy self that sometimes says the awkward thing and is easily moved to tears. 

Your fumbly self is needed and necessary. Think about these questions. (For real. Answer them.)

  • How do you want to be seen as a leader? What leadership image are you clinging to?
  • What’s the worst thing to happen if you took your leadership mask off? What’s scary about it? Why does that scare you?
  • News flash: Your privilege and responsibility as a leader is to set culture. How would you describe the culture you want?
  • Be real – is your behavior in line with the culture you’re currently setting? How would your most and least engaged team members answer this?
  • What one thing can you do to better align your behaviors and words with the culture you envision?

I’m not saying leaders can’t continue to push forward and drive toward bold goals and a shared vision. We need that more than ever. But we also need to create intentional space for people to safely share their feelings, fears and challenges. There’s enough room for both. I repeat for the stubborn people in the back who don’t think this article is for them – there’s enough room for both.

We’re heading into a world where being an authentic, vulnerable leader is no longer optional. It’s imperative. And it starts with self-awareness. What are you clinging to? How is your fear affecting your culture?

We are still slogging through this collective trauma and will be forever changed. We can’t look away and pretend we’re not changing. We must create emotionally inclusive cultures where teams feel psychologically safe. That’s how we’ll keep people around and committed to doing their best work in our new world. 

Take off your mask. Lead by example. Your real, complex human emotions create safe spaces for everyone on your team who is struggling in visible and invisible ways.

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