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Amaryllis Fox
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Want to be a better leader? Take off the mask.

The best leaders don't project perfection. Peter Fuda explains why.

PETER FUDA: So one of the greatest challenges for us as leaders, particularly in a time of great change and disruption where we need even stronger levels of connection and commitment with and for our people is the wearing of a mask; the idea that we need to put on some kind of pretense as a leader to assume we figured it all out. And I've see leaders wear two kinds of masks. There's the mask of the imposter, the mast of the phantom. The Phantom of the Opera. In Phantom of the Opera I know I'm wearing a mask, you know I'm wearing a mask. I know that you know I'm wearing a mask. The one thing we cannot talk about in this team is the fact that I'm wearing a mask, the mask of the imposter often called imposter syndrome. There's second mask which is what we might call the mask of the persona. A bit more like Jim Carrey's character in the movie The Mask. He picks up the mask of Loki, an ancient mystical god, it takes over him and he becomes a superhero character called The Mask in order to save the day and win the girl.

And that's the kind of mask where we're a warm caring human being at home and then we come to work and we say 'I've got to kick ass and take names because we work in a tough industry.' And that creates enormous internal conflict. How this ends up manifesting itself, particularly at very senior leadership levels—CEO, chairman, board level—is that we try and project an image of perfection to the world. In fact, we tend to wear perfectionism as a badge of honor. And the important thing to understand is the perfectionism is about looking good, not doing good. It's driven by a fear of failure and a security orientation. And the analogy I often use is if you think about a child when it first starts to walk. It crawls, it face plants, it crawls, it face plants, it crawls, hits its head on the table, falls off the couch—over and over and over and over and over again.

At no point in that journey do we as adults say 'Look, junior, this walking thing may not be for you. You should stick with the crawling.' And yet as senior executives we do this all the time. If we can't master something instantly we say 'No, I'm not doing that. I will look stupid.' We try to project an image of perfection. It creates a great disconnect from not just our people but from ourselves and from the best parts of ourselves. Rather than embracing our imperfections, which are the things that make us interesting and human. By the way, your people know you're imperfect anyway so when you embrace your imperfections they know you're honest as well. And so the simple distinction for people who want to make this shift is rather than try and be perfect or project perfection, instead be like the child, like you were as a kid yourself and try and perfect the craft. That's an achievement motivation; this isn't a security motivation. This is about self- protection; this is about learning and growth and contribution.

And the most effective leaders are those who rather than try and project perfection, who instead try and perfect the craft. They create an organization of people who are prepared to say they don't know. Who are prepared to ask for help. Who are prepared to learn and grow over time. And, of course, they are the organizations that ultimately outperform all others.

  • There are two kinds of masks leaders wear. Executive coach Peter Fuda likens one to The Phantom of the Opera—projecting perfectionism to hide feelings of inadequacy—and the other to The Mask, where leaders assume a persona of toughness or brashness because they imagine it projects the power needed for the position.
  • Both of those masks are motivated by self-protection, rather than learning, growth and contribution. "By the way," says Fuda, "your people know you're imperfect anyway, so when you embrace your imperfections they know you're honest as well."
  • The most effective leaders are those who try to perfect their craft rather than try to perfect their image. They inspire a culture of learning and growth, not a culture where people are afraid to ask for help.

Individuals and organizations can learn more from Peter Fuda at enixa.co.

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