By Dr. Jivi Saran
Ready to become a transformational leader? It’s time to take your mask off.
No, not the one you’re thinking about. The mask I’m talking about is your leadership mask — the ideal and perfect role you’re trying to portray. This is a particularly common technique among people of colour and women. Performing in a leadership role is a bit like dancing in a masquerade ball. There are steps, a routine to follow, but the tempo is always changing. To avoid a misstep, many leaders cling to a routine, even if it’s not in their best interest, or even entirely appropriate to the situation.
As a Senior Business Advisor at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), I’ve spent 35 years collaborating with business leaders who want to maximize their potential and create high-performance teams. I’ve worked globally in just about every industry except aerospace (it’s on the bucket list). My secret to creating high-powered teams? Executives and CEOs must be willing to un-mask — to realize and maximize their true leadership potential.
Taking the mask off isn’t easy. It’s predictable and protective. For women and minorities who are often judged more harshly, it can feel like the mask creates a cool anonymity that’s often confused with professionalism. No one is supposed to know about the fight you had with your partner or father’s mental decline. Numbers, project deadlines, and growth are where business leaders are supposed to live and die. But that’s not tenable as a leader — or a human being.
Taking Off the Mask
Authenticity is probably the best worst-kept secret of the business world. The knee-jerk horror at the idea of feeling vulnerable is a perfectly normal response, particularly if you feel like you already receive unfair scrutiny and judgement. Yet, it’s this vulnerability — the real stuff — that often works to connect you to your team.
Think of it like this, if you’re overwhelmed by a work task — frustrated, confused, irritated — your team members almost certainly feel the same. And ignoring this isn’t going to make it go away. A facade of cool unflappability, especially coupled with a by-the-book attitude, can make you unapproachable. At best, you miss out on opportunities to connect and emphasize with team members. At worst, it creates space for miscommunication and errors.
Team members may be hesitant that voicing concerns may be perceived as weakness. They don’t want to mess up any more than you do. When things go wrong, pretending everything is fine doesn’t work. Acknowledge feelings of futility, frustration, disappointment — and find a way to move forward. When things go right, celebrate. Share your excitement and approval.
Authenticity is a cornerstone of leadership. Your role doesn’t end at business leader, you are also a human being. And the legacy of your company, the stuff that will live beyond your tenure, is made up of your team’s beliefs, its energy — your corporate culture. The ability to unmask, show your humanity, and adjust your course is vital. The secret sauce of leadership has always been competency, with a dash of humanity.
7 Questions to Ask Yourself
Leading authentically isn’t just about how you present yourself to your employees, it also requires taking an honest look inward. If you’re serious about creating a high-caliber team, the sort that unlocks growth and profitability, ask yourself these seven questions about your performance:
- How do team members talk about you?
- What stories about you are shared around the water cooler?
- When you return home, how do you feel? Are you excited to transition out of your work role to your family role? Or are you tired and frustrated with nothing left to give?
- How do you WANT people to talk about you as a leader?
- What legacy do you want to leave behind? How do you hope to impact humanity?
- How much time do you waste on random thoughts every day? Based on your salary and time, assign a dollar amount. Now multiply that by the number of people on your team.
- Do you want to create a workplace where everyone functions with purpose, ease, and grace?
Sovereign Leadership: Preparing to Take the Lead
Removing your mask and asking these seven questions are steps on the path to becoming a sovereign leader. What does it mean to be a sovereign leader? If we return to the analogy of the masquerade ball, this is how you take the lead. Sovereign leadership is about growing into yourself as a leader. It’s where you learn how to leverage your individual industry experience, energy, and passion to create a leadership style that’s smart and approachable. In other words, you gain the confidence to listen and learn what’s happening around you and then make adjustments as needed. However, doing this means coming to terms with several factors:
- and self-actualization
Leaders wear many mantles. And the higher you climb, the more will be expected. To manage, report, correct, direct, nurture, assert, and grow, you need to feel comfortable approaching team members with understanding and empathy. You have to feel comfortable being yourself — man, woman, non-binary, person of colour (or some combination of these). There’s no other way this works.
Aligning with yourself as a leader takes work, but it is a profoundly rewarding journey filled with deep, personal insights. By unmasking and becoming the best version of yourself — and allowing others to do the same, you can create a workplace that’s happier, healthier, more efficient, and more inclusive. And isn’t that the point of the whole dance?