How can leaders spark and sustain change in themselves and their organizations?
I devoted my doctoral research to this question and came up with an unconventional answer: metaphors. My co-author Richard Badham and I wrote about four of them in this HBR article: fire (representing ambition), snowball (accountability), movie (reflection) and mask (authenticity). Others include: master chef (use of tools and frameworks), coach (internal and external support) and Russian dolls (organizational context), which I covered in this blog post.
These seven concepts helped all the CEOs we studied make the transition from ineffective to effective, stymied to successful, frustrated to celebrated, and in my consulting practice over the past few years, I’ve helped many more executives do the same. Interestingly, the metaphor that has sparked the greatest interest and debate is mask.
There two main ways in which leaders wear masks. Some conceal their perceived inadequacies and flaws behind the polished facade we have come to expect of “great” leaders, a bit like the Phantom from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic musical The Phantom of the Opera. Others take on a new persona at work that they feel is necessary for success, much like Jim Carrey’s character Stanley Ipkiss in the movie The Mask, who transforms into a flamboyant green superhero. Both types of mask undermine trust and effectiveness. They also create inner conflict, as leaders struggle to align their work and home lives. This three-minute animation provides a neat summary of the metaphor.
In my work with executives, I’ve found the mask metaphor to be particularly relevant with women. Take Christine, the highly articulate and ambitious CEO of a credit reporting and debt collection company that had been acquired by a private-equity firm. In order to justify the firm’s investment, Christine had agreed to dramatically increase her business’s financial performance. Her credibility was on the line, but she wasn’t sure her young team was up for the challenge. In response, she put on a mask of persona: toughness.
At the time, this felt logical. After years of working in a macho, male-dominated industry, she thought she had to be highly competitive and hard-driving to succeed. Whenever her instincts for openness, warmth, and curiosity bubbled up, she pushed them back down for fear of not being taken seriously. As a result, she created a dysfunctional work environment focused exclusively on execution and results. If you hit your target, you were a superstar. If you didn’t, you’d better raise your game. After three strikes, you were out. There were no real conversations about the bigger picture, how to get better results through clever resourcing or innovation.
It took a few new and smart senior hires to get Christine to drop the mask. They were harder to fool and made her feel comfortable shifting to a more collaborative mindset. “We lost a lot of the unnecessary formality in our interactions and began to have very rich conversations,” she explains. “I wish I had listened to my instincts sooner instead of going through the motions of being tough. I’ve learned that authenticity comes from confidence, and confidence comes from taking risks but you can’t take risks unless you’re prepared to be vulnerable.”
Christine’s team and organization thrived under her new leadership, boosting revenue tenfold and setting industry benchmarks for performance. She has since transitioned away from executive life and now serves as an independent director on several boards and president of a think tank and networking organization for top female CEOs. Recently, I asked her what advice she gives today to rising young female executives. Her response was all about dropping the mask: “I place no value on the literature talking about how to succeed as a woman in business. It’s too binary. One school says ‘be tough,’ and the other one says ‘be a nurturer.’ It’s bloody confusing and completely unhelpful. What about ‘just be yourself’?”