Modern leadership is about making people’s lives easier, with the hope that quality of life improvements will filter down into employee work and the success of the business overall. To do that, you might have to reach into your personal life and apply a little of your ‘home’ persona to your ‘business’ persona.

Leadership is not necessarily a natural fit for some people and for those people it can be tempting to ask “what am I doing here?” This is particularly true if you’re struggling to fit your personality into the company ethos and you are being expected you to manage things in a manner that might be outside of your comfort zone. However, you might be surprised to learn that the traits most employees look for in a leader are based on understanding and integrity.

88% of employees surveyed by Dale Carnegie Training said they value bosses that listen to them, but only 60% felt their current leader exhibited that trait. 87% also said it was important for bosses to show legitimate appreciation for them, but only 61% felt they get that appreciation.

Most employees want a leader who will develop themselves and others, allowing them to share ideas, make mistakes, learn from them and improve. It can be tempting to conceal our perceived inadequacies and flaws to preserve our polished facades or adopt a leadership persona that doesn’t chime with our actual personas, but both of these approaches create inner conflict, with leaders struggling to align their work and personal personas.

Wearing a mask to work

Many managers have tried and failed to be something that they’re not simply because there’s an outdated preconception about what being a leader means. The idea of the mask is a common one in business and it can be comforting to wear these masks, particularly when we’re thrust into new roles and have decades of outdated ‘leadership’ stereotypes to fall back on.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) embarked on a doctoral research project studying seven CEOs who have achieved great success in transforming themselves, their teams and their businesses by developing their soft skills. They found four metaphors to represent how leaders can become more effective with “fire” representing ambition, “movie” representing self-reflection, “snowball” reflecting accountability and “mask” reflecting authenticity.

Mike Shove, CEO of multinational IT outsourcer CSC, felt ill-prepared for his promotion to such a lofty position at first and initially tried to bluff his way through. He explains: “I thought – I’ll be the tough guy. It’s working for my boss; he’s scaring the hell out of me.” It didn’t work, so he tried a different approach: “I’ll be the nice guy. That didn’t work either. I was making it up as I went along. I was a bit of a fake.

During his first few months as CEO, financial results for Mike were poor and this was largely down to his inconsistent behaviour, which caused his employees to second-guess him at every turn. To turn things around he had to find not only more confidence in himself, but he needed to rebuild his leadership identity around that newfound confidence.

What if I’m not a natural manager?

Of course, whilst there are definite benefits to bringing parts of yourself to work – not everyone is a natural leader. In certain situations, where everything is going wrong and deadlines are fast-approaching, if the man at the top doesn’t really want to be there, panic can set in.

Rather than force themselves to adopt a mask that doesn’t fit and risk making things worse, it would make infinitely more sense to instead hire an interim manager with the right kind of expertise required to get the team over the finish line. This way you get to maintain your integrity whilst also achieving top results.

Dropping the mask

So, dropping the mask at work completely might not sacrifice your integrity, but it will almost certainly sacrifice some of your authority. It’s up to you how much of that authority you’re willing to relinquish and how much of the mask you’re willing to permit yourself to drop. Either way, the real key is in knowing yourself, knowing what you’re capable of and knowing when to ask for help.

Photo credits: eOffice

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