Which Mask Are You Wearing?

The spirit of the recent Christmas/New Years holidays and its associated advertising made me think of masks. I saw an ad which reminded me that we can play a role by dressing for it, by wearing the right fashion—a “mask.” I saw another ad selling me on the idea that I would be more successful with a better, whiter set of teeth—an improved mask. Yet another ad encouraged us all to take off our masks and get naked, literally, from an organization advocating naturism! I’ll spare you.

We also wear masks in our relationships, personal and professional. We tend to unconsciously play a role and wear that mask. We are the parent to a child. The subordinate to a boss. The spouse to a husband. The coach of the track team. And the leader of a function. We can also wear the mask of the expert to someone seeking our advice. We can be the strong, tough person during a difficult meeting. We can be the humble person being admonished. With different scenarios and people, we can feel different.

A mask is a “false self.”
During the Halloween time of year, we should spend a few minutes thinking about the masks we wear. Philosopher Eckhart Tolle says that in fulfilling various expectations and roles, we put on a false self or private self. The false self feeds the ego’s need to survive. The mask allows us to adapt to whatever it needs to be in the moment, even if that mask distorts our values and our basic beliefs. So, how do we take the mask off when we need to be our true self and live our values, live our purpose, and really grow as human beings? How do we show our private self to the world—especially during stressful, challenging times of change, frustration, or pressure?

I’m reminded of the lesson I learned from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. Leaders can lead from the front or lead from the back. And when you are leading from the front, you must understand that you are a symbol. You are the symbol of people’s identity of who they are as a community or as an organization. But Mandela is careful to articulate that, as a symbol, you must be authentic to who you are … you as the true self must be the symbol. Being a false self and trying to be the symbol of the organization will not work. People will see through the fraud you are perpetuating. The real leader shows up as their true self.

Paths to the self.
There are two separate and simultaneous paths to being ourselves.
The first path is to forget, ignore, or remove your title, the labels you put on yourself, and the self-judgments you make about yourself. You are no longer John, Bill or Steve, CEO, industry icon, expert in operations research, and the best thing that ever happened to your company. You are John. You are enough as just John.