Authentic Leadership: Who’s Behind the Mask?


Authenticity is one of the most essential and admired leadership traits, however in today’s world it seems to be lacking. What you see is not often what you get. The masquerade mask became a symbol in the 17th century. It was the key accessory at a masquerade ball; it made everyone look equal and it allowed attendees to be whoever they wanted to be for one night. It embodied delusion and deceit. Today, it seems to have made a comeback in the 21st century at the Leadership Ball.

There are 3 main ways in which leaders wear masks: To hide their true identity, to conceal insecurities and to take on a new persona that they feel is necessary for success. However, wearing masks undermines trust and effectiveness.

Here are 7 masks some leaders wear:

1. Orator (The Two Face mask) - Double tongued are they. Great communicator, more like great deceiver. They can sound so persuasive, so caring and so sincere. Fervent lips which sound so eloquent can hide true character. Behind the dazzling mask lies their real intentions of deception. Erroneous communications are a big cause of lack of perceived trustworthiness in bosses. Politicians are notorious and highly populate this category. However, their actions always expose them. We don’t take them at face value because we don’t know which face they have on.

2. Advocate (The 3 Musketeers mask) - “One for all and one for one.” They are all for me, myself and I. The love of money and power is their main motivator. They outwardly proclaim they are people focused and their priority is with the team but behind closed doors they are self seeking. Therefore when the opportunity is presented to prove it they cannot. They will do anything to make themselves look good or maintain their status quo even at the expense of the team.

3. Philanthropist (The Robin Hood mask) - They give with the right hand but secretly take back with the left hand. Under this disguise these type of leaders give openly so others can think highly of them. If there was no fanfare they would not support charitable initiatives. Former Tyco International Ltd. Chairman Dennis Kozlowski improperly used company funds to promote himself as a generous benefactor. He committed more than $100 million of the conglomerate's money to good causes however his own foundation gave little to charity. He was accused of stealing $134 million from the company and served 8 years in prison.

4. Obdurate (The Iron Man mask) - They scarcely show their true feelings or human side. They think they need to have this public tough image. Marissa Mayer, yahoo’s CEO comes across as cold and disconnected by her employees. Her recent policies (maternity leave and long-term telecommuting) have caused outrage. Adopting this persona alienates and pushes people away. By exposing their vulnerability and dropping this mask, leaders inspire their followers to do the same, ending in a more aligned relationship between the leader and their followers.

5. Meek (The Mister Fantastic mask) - They appear so humble and act down to earth when in fact they are full of conceit. They have this entitlement and superiority composite. However, their true colours are revealed in unguarded moments. I remember once working late and overhearing a manager speaking with a supervisor. He didn’t realize I was there and openly spoke to her. As I sat there I couldn’t believe that this is the person I thought I knew. When he came out of his office and saw me by my desk, he seemed really disoriented and shocked and asked if I had overheard him. Well, my whole perception of him changed from that day.

6. Proficient – (The Phantom of the Opera mask) - Some leaders conceal perceived imperfections in favour of a polished image. The demands or expectations that society creates leaves them feeling mediocre and inadequate. They are uncomfortable in their own skin so they try to measure up and may even employ unethical methods to fit in. Lying on his resume cost former Bausch & Lomb CEO Ronald Zarrella $1.1 million in bonus after it was revealed he did not have an MBA as recorded. Company officials declined to accept his resignation. He remained in his role for another six years before retiring in 2008. Ironically, he probably didn’t need that degree. His prior job experiences were almost certainly enough. Still, like so many people, he seemed to have yearned for a status symbol.

7. Conformist - (The Shape-Shifter mask) - In this case, top management puts pressure on these types of managers to change their principles. Their style may not fit in with the changing culture. There is a shift between their preferred style of behaviour and what the company wants. The difficulty is trying to express your complex but authentic self within a system that wants you to wear a mask for ease of flexibility and productivity. In these types of situations you could either decide to adapt or leave if it creates inner conflict.

When is wearing a mask okay?

If you have low emotional Intelligence wearing a mask may be necessary to cover negative moods as rage and anger or disappointments and downheartedness…etc

We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. -Andre Berthiaume

When was the last time you looked in the mirror? I don’t mean glance in the mirror. I mean stop and took a long hard look. What do you really see? Are you proud of the image that is reflected? You might realize your nose has grown (Pinocchio) or accelerated aging has set in due to continuous wearing of various masks.In the era of social media where leaders' personal and professional lives are often transparently intertwined the mask eventually becomes apparent; we may cheat others but most importantly we are only fooling ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to keep a mask in place. We all have been guilty of masking in some way or other during our leadership journeys, although the extent to which we layer ourselves varies greatly. Transform yourself by dropping the facade and removing the mask. If you want to be authentic you need to look at your masks. You might want to hold onto some and let others go. Regardless, it’s an exercise in self-exploration and personal development. The important thing is to analyze where you have fallen short and then make the necessary changes to take your leadership identity to meaningful heights. Walking in authenticity and genuineness gives freedom.