The Masks We Wear

“We all wear masks…metaphorically speaking”

Jim Carrey — The Mask

One of the enduring images from the current pandemic will be the wearing of masks. From every corner of the globe, the medical advice has emphasized the need to keep everyone safe from COVID-19 and recommended the wearing of a face mask to cover the mouth and nose. Even when the restrictions on interactions in the society were lifted, the public wearing of masks was still considered normal. In fact, to appear in public without a mask would elicit remonstrations or ridicule from society, and in some cases prosecution from the police force. So, any attempt at memorializing this moment in human history would fail spectacularly if the mask or people wearing masks were not included.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion organized by the ASCD, called: School Leader Well-being. The ASCD is one of the leading educational organizations in the USA with credible evidence of leadership in publishing educational literature, organizing conferences, promoting community, raising awareness, and addressing inequity in education. This particular event was organized under the shadow of COVID-19 and the majority of the participants have experienced school leaders. The discussion’s goal was to ascertain how school leaders were focusing on their own well-being as they simultaneously manage the complexity of running schools in a pandemic.

As a participant, it was obvious that this engagement was cathartic for many, and the sharing that ensued revealed the plethora of challenges faced as well as the range of experience present in the room. One participant, newly appointed as an administrator, confessed to having no other experience of school other than with the looming presence of COVID! On the other hand, there were experienced leaders who eventually conceded that the systems that they had established prior to COVID, could potentially resolve some of the issues arising from the present situation. The outcome of the conversation was that many leaders do not focus on their own well-being as they do on others. And that this has led to stress.

With so many leaders in the same context, it was clear that the leaders present had recognized this was a safe space to share. A place to unmask themselves perhaps? School leaders have always had to wear “masks” in order to be successful change-makers. This metaphorical mask enables leaders to function effectively by hiding their current emotions. Who really wants to be led by a person who loses their cool, exhibits frantic behavior, rants, and raves at every challenge? Leadership is surely about being honest but importantly it is about being cool under pressure. This unconscious mask-wearing in school systems by leaders provides an escape from the reality of how they are feeling while focusing on the job at hand. But where and when can school leaders remove their masks and just let go? And how will unmasking themselves lead to better wellness or wellbeing?

This thought occurred to me as I watched the conversation on Zoom. Everyone had their masks off and was sharing openly and frankly. The masks were off on two levels. The first level is the physical level, where professional discourse could be had without the need for physical space and so everyone did not need to worry about the physical mask. We were connecting again. Faces were seen and there was no risk of infections. The second level was the metaphorical mask. It was off. We could be human again and share our frustrations, worries, and anxieties. We were in a group of non-judgemental professionals — like-minded and experienced-partners. The point is everyone needs a space to unmask but before we do, safety is paramount. Conversations of this nature, about shared challenges, encourage school leaders to feel safe and remove their masks.

So why do we wear masks (the metaphorical ones) and what might be the implications for school leader support systems going forward? Also, for how long can we carry the burden of wearing masks before we personally implode? Masks are devised to provide protection. In COVID-19, it reduces the risks of infecting others with a dangerous disease. Juxtaposing this with the metaphorical mask, perhaps leaders believe that the masks they wear protect their followers in some way. Or they might consider that their veneer of calmness commands respect and builds trust. Yet, it is interesting that you can still be deciphered from behind a mask. A friend of mine, a school leader, recently posted a picture of himself on LinkedIn at the start of the school term. A number of the comments referred to his eyes as a window to the smile that was blocked by the mask. So maybe, our masks reveal more than we think to our followers. I wonder if we wear masks to protect others, or just ourselves?

The research has found a high turnover rate for International school leaders. The looming shadow of an ax dropping any minute impacts the mindset of many leaders. With this pressure constantly turned on, they have little choice but to wear masks of calmness and authority in order to project a persona of tranquility. Given the isolated nature of International school leadership and the fact that many of their colleagues will be in direct competition with them, there is hardly any safe space for them to remove their masks and breathe easily. So even when things go tough, who can they speak with? This pressure and no real opportunity to release it can impact their wellness. So in order to function, leaders balance their social face with their authentic face.

The oscillatory tension between social performance and authenticity may be rooted in the province of psycho-analytical theory. The history of masks reveals their importance as a window into understanding personality and persona. Oscar Wilde suggested that only when a man dons a mask do we see their truth. He humorously postulated that man is not himself without the protection of a mask. Psychologists opine that human frailty could be unpacked and understood by peeling away the different masks we attach to our person. We wear masks for protection but whose? As school leaders or even educators, we survive the daily grind by attaching a mask that works. We need acceptance and concord. Harmony. Yet as we switch from mask to mask, to what extent do we lose our actual selves and become one of the appendages? And how burdensome are these masks? And how does our seeming in-control-ness impact others understanding our strain and offering support? When is it safe to remove our mask? Or masks.

Another observation of the present pandemic has been the personal choice of masks we wear. Many opt for cloth masks that offer the semblance of matching with attire and perhaps convey our privilege. The medical advice is to wear the basic surgical mask as it is more effective. Yet many will choose the more colorful cloth as it looks better. Again, the wearing of masks by school leaders mirrors this reality. Who is an authentic leader? Northouse (2007) describes an authentic leader as one who builds legitimacy through honest engagements with followers? Is it realistic to foster trust when we intentionally wear masks in our daily interactions? Trust is critical. Perhaps as we privately unmask, we consider this transparency for the people we lead. As leaders, we may need to consider the questions: What masks do I wear as I lead my school? How important is it that I continue to wear the mask? And even when my mask slips, why do I readjust it to hide my feelings? Who am I protecting when I wear these metaphorical masks? Me? My team?

The quote I used to start this writing is particularly poignant for this time. It is an extraction from the Jim Carrey movie “The Mask”. The main character dons a mask and immediately becomes another person. Eventually, the mask and the mask wearer became so connected that it was difficult to conclude which was the real person. We wear masks as leaders daily. No question we do. We want to believe that it is a choice. We convince ourselves that this is the best way to function. Yet, how do we know when the mask we wear becomes us? How?

Perhaps, COVID-19 is a real opportunity for us to examine our authenticity as leaders. We can do this by removing our current physical masks in front of the mirror. Look yourself in the eye and slowly remove your surgical mask and check on you. Check that you are feeling well and that it is safe to remove your mask. Consider where in your leadership role do you remove the hidden mask, the face on your face, and ponder its necessity?

“We all wear masks…metaphorically speaking… “

Dr. Megel R Barker (@mathter)

By Comments off December 10, 2020