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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Great Conversation On Leadership By James Heskett

Here is the best dialogue I’ve seen yet on authentic leadership and the perceived need many leaders have to wear “The Masks of Command.” My thanks to Jim Heskett and HBS Working Knowledge for engaging these issues

Originally on posted on Harvard Business School – Working Knowledge by James Heskett, a Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

Summing Up

Do authentic leaders need “masks of command”? Instructors seek case studies posing issues that provoke discussion on both sides of an issue and raise many questions. We seem to have found such an issue this month: Can the “masks of command” coexist with authentic leadership?

Those arguing that the two can coexist cite situations, generally involving adversity, in which the “greater good” is served by masking a leader’s feelings. Frances Pratt argued that “… we must be careful (and caring) in the way we tell people difficult things. I do not believe that this makes us inauthentic.” As Marlis Krichewsky put it, “Playing with the mask when the situation allows it strengthens the team spirit.” Dan Erwin commented, “… rather than a single underlying, authentic and true self, individuals are a collection of masks tied to particular social or work settings.” While agreeing in general, Ann Parker voiced a note of caution: “All leaders at times mask their feelings, especially fear or uncertainty. The danger is that for some they begin to believe that the mask is who they really are.”

Others were not so sanguine. Richard Neff offered the opinion that “The(re) is no right or one way to lead … It should, however, always be authentic. Otherwise it’s not leadership at all.” Kamal Gupta pointed out that “Speaking the truth with your team always helps. It builds trust.” Shadreck Saili commented, “When a leader builds a mask around him/her … you close yourself from learning.” Joe Schmid had no doubt, saying, “I’ll simpl(ify) the question substituting ‘two faced’ for ‘mask.’ Can a two faced leader be ‘authentic’? … Absolutely not.” M. Mushato was even more emphatic: “The mask concept explains most if not all of mankind’s woes of today.”

Those arguing a middle ground put forth some interesting suggestions, such as Leamon Duncan’s: “… sometimes leaders must mask feelings and emotions in order to exhibit calm in the midst of chaos…. It’s after the battle when the leader shares how they actually felt or the range of emotions they were experiencing…. Be who you are, lead how you prefer to be led.”

The importance of self-awareness in the use of “masks” was stressed repeatedly. As Richard Strasser said, “… to lead with authenticity, a leader needs to be very comfortable with who he is as a person.” Brian Woodward put it this way: “The most important and powerful conversations occur between the individual leader and his/her leader’s mask.”

Questions raised were as interesting as the comments. Although she didn’t pose it as a question, Dianne Jacobs challenged us to think about whether “the experience and consequences of practicing leadership (and the use of masks) will be different for women”? (She believes they are.) Dr. Kervokian asked whether what is authentic is relative to “environmental and cultural norms.” Then there were those who asked just what functions “masks” serve? David Broderick said, “The main reason masks exist is for leaders to hide their flaws from their followers.” Srini commented that “‘Authentic Leaders’ do not have the need for a mask.” What do you think?

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