Taking off the Mask and Leading with Authenticity, Vulnerability and Courage

By Audrey Riley

So, hands up those who feel guilty when popping into the supermarket without their masks. Hands up those who feel a little naked without their masks. And hands up those who are delighted to be able to see the whole face of the person you are interacting with. I have to admit to having had my hand up all the time! I remember how we all struggled to adjust to the masks when it first became mandatory to wear them – unless of course you were in a field where you already wore them all the time. And isn’t it interesting how quickly they become part of us? And in many cases, a fashion statement as well?

However, Covid masks aside, I realised that we are always wearing a mask of some sorts. We have our work masks, our family and close friends’ masks, our acquaintances masks and so on. And by masks, what I mean is that we have a slightly different persona for each occasion, depending on the situation and the company. This made me think about authenticity and how most leadership articles are calling for ‘authentic leadership’ as the panacea for everything. But how authentic can we be when we, often unconsciously, behave slightly differently in different circumstances? And should we be the same in every single situation?

To answer those questions, perhaps we should define exactly what we mean by ‘authentic’. According to the Cambridge dictionary, authentic  means ‘being what it is claimed to be; genuine’ as well as, ‘real, true, what people say it is’. And what of authentic leadership? Well, there are varying definitions out there, but the common thread seems to be that authentic leaders are self-aware, genuine, lead with heart, disciplined, are mission driven, focused on the long term and are able to inspire faith. I wonder how many leaders out there encompass all these characteristics and I ask, not from a place of judgement, but a place of empathy for how difficult it can be to be all this, especially in a world where these behaviours are often not rewarded. I think it’s especially difficult for women leaders to be authentic in the workplace, as more often than not, the corporate world emphasises competition, bravado and aggression, with no place for emotion or kindness. Mission driven is fine, but leading with heart whilst doing so, requires courage and vulnerability – two characteristics that are not often recognised or encouraged in the work environment. However, it is these two things, courage and vulnerability, which are key to creating an authentic leader. Courage to speak up and out, about ourselves and for those in our team and vulnerability to share what’s going on for us and encourage those around us to do the same. This does not mean that we necessarily have to let everything hang out – there are definitely some things that we don’t need to share – but what it does mean is that we relate to each other as humans first and work mates second. An authentic leader, whilst leading with heart and inspiring faith, is not a push-over leader and will be able to have those difficult conversations where performance is lacking, but they will do so from a place of fairness and accountability.

Going back to my question of should we be the same in every situation, I don’t think it’s entirely possible or even appropriate always. The kind of conversations we will have with a close friend should have a different tone to that of a conversation we have with our line manager. However, what should be consistent are our underlying values and way of being, meaning that the way we listen to people and respect their humanness should be the same, regardless of whom we are interacting with. The way that we respect every person we meet and seek to understand them, the way in which we continue to cultivate our own self-awareness and the way in which take a disciplined approach to our growth, should always be the same. By being brave and challenging ourselves to show up with vulnerability, we can truly become authentic leaders and take our masks off and breathe easy.

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