The masks that leaders wear at work

Amanda Fajak

Joseph Campbell once wrote ‘The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are’. What a profound yet simple set of words that seem somehow so difficult to achieve.

The masks that leaders wear

Psychologists for decades have written about ‘the masks that we wear’. These masks are the layers we put in front of ourselves to protect our ego and our well-being. Masks ensure that the world stays one step away from our soft underbelly and as a result we can live a safe and successful life.

But is safe successful? What happens when we protect ourselves with emotional barbed wire? How rich are our relationships? How deep are our experiences? Who are we really protecting?

When we can be ourselves we are able to engage fully and deeply with others around us, we can fill the full range of emotions from fear and despair to ecstatic joy.

So why do we protect ourselves? Karen Horney a student of Freud believed that our protection mechanisms are triggered at a very early age. From the moment we first encounter resistance we create strategies to protect our inner selves. As we progress through life these defences become like a comfortable pair of shoes – they sit with us and make us feel safe.

As leaders in organisations these masks are often exacerbated. I can’t tell you the number of leaders I have coached who have shared with me that as a result of years of leadership development courses, where they are instructed to behave in a range of different ways, they simply have lost who they are.

We live in the world with other people which means our identity will always be measured in the context of others – are we smarter, are we quieter, are we more detailed oriented, are we quirkier. As humans we love to label others AND ourselves.

The only thing we can strive for is to be the best version of ourselves, to embrace and accept our differences and not judge ourselves too harshly. Our own inner critic is the person we most often have to face and conquer and we need to recognise the source of that critic and its nature in order to face it like we would any other enemy.


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