Behind the Mask

Self-knowledge is easier spoken of, than achieved. Part of the problem is that most of us wrongly assume that we already know who we are; when in fact, achieving self-knowledge is a lifelong challenge.

Children have a lot to teach us about ourselves. Not long ago, I was at my eye doctor's office and ran into a little girl who was sitting with her brother and her new puppy as she waited for her mom to finish with her appointment. The child was an outgoing, talkative 10-year-old, and in no time I knew her name, Sophia; her age, 10 and her dog's name, Lucky. Sophia, like so many children, was innocently open to the world around her.

As we sat together, she explained to me that Lucky was a new addition to her family, a replacement for a dog that, her parents told her, had run away. "I know that our dog was really hit by a car, but Mom told me he ran away -- I guess that was easier for her. So I let her think I believed her." In our brief conversation I also learned that Sophia is an avid softball player, and is studying the violin. Sophia has dreams and aspirations, too. Someday she hopes to become a professional softball player. Her violin teacher even told her that, when she makes a pro team, he'll come to watch her play. Such is the innocence of children.

But are kids like Sophia more than innocents waiting to be jaded by the twists, turns and 'hard knocks' of life? In a haunting passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that "unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God." If we let them, children like Sophia (ironically her name is the Greek word for "wisdom") have something to teach us -- about life, and about leadership.

What is the wisdom of the children that can be so helpful to us in finding our own place in the world and as leaders? The first thing I noticed about Sophia is that she knew who she was, and knew it with refreshing immediacy. She belonged somewhere in the world -- in a family, with a dog, in the world of playing softball and making music on the violin. All this gave her a sense of rootedness that allowed her to engage the world, even strangers she met at the doctor's office, with confidence and candor -- and to do so as her true self, without a "mask," or self-protective disguise of any kind.

Leaders need this sense of rootedness -- we need to know who we are in the world. That starts with a sense of belonging in our personal lives. Leaders need stability and love at home. They need support and encouragement as they prepare to realize their dreams. Sophia had loving parents who encouraged her to develop her skills in sports and music. They communicated care about her feelings, trying to protect her from the pain of knowing her dog had been killed. She also had supportive adults in her life, like her music teacher, willing to encourage her dreams of playing professional sports, even while knowing that those dreams would shift and change over the years.

Every successful leader needs that kind of nurturing and support. There is no such thing as a leader independent of his or her larger network of family, friends and colleagues. We are all part of a web -- ultimately that web is the great network of humanity. We need, in that web, mentors and guides; we need encouragement and protection. We need people who believe in us! It is wonderful if this kind of support starts in the home, with a loving spouse or partner. Aspiring leaders must seek out and develop an extended "family" of friends and colleagues who will cheer for us when we need encouragement, and speak the truth to us in kindness when we need honesty. We need senior leaders to show us the ropes and mentor us with their advice and share with us the benefits of their experience.

With this kind of support, we are more able to "be ourselves," even outside our comfort zones. Sophia's innocent openness can be an example to us of the zone of creativity that children live in, but which adults often lose sight of. Because Sophia felt "safe" in her world, she was able to dream seemingly impossible dreams -- dreams of playing professional ball, and of making great music on the violin. As we become adults, and meet a less accepting and supportive world head-on, we often lose our ability to be in that zone of creativity.

But it is only in that zone that we can be in sync with the flow of our lives, and connect to the inner creativity that waits, like molten lava flowing under a dormant volcano, for the moment when it will burst forth with creative energy and seismic growth. It is in this zone that we can know and embrace that feeling, that hope, that there is still more to do, that we can succeed in making our dreams come true, and helping others to do the same. It is here alone where we can be in touch with our more creative instincts, and learn to trust them.

With a good sense of self-knowledge we can -- and as leaders must -- develop the ability to know others; to know those who will rely on us as leaders. Again let me turn to Sophia -- with her openness and innocence, she was able to put me at ease, and let me learn a bit about my "new friend."

If we are to lead others, we must first know them: Who are they? What do they want out of life? What motivates them; makes them tick? While all this information is important, most people are reluctant to let others know them that well -- and they are especially reluctant to share all that with their leaders.

The key to dissolving that reluctance is empathy, the ability to communicate, "I'm on your side." Empathy seeks to understand, rather than to be understood. It is the rare quality in a person that listens without judgment, simply to learn. Empathy accepts others as they are, not as we would have them be. It is what creates trust and enables significant communication.

When people feel empathy, they begin to trust, to open up, to share their hopes, dreams and aspirations. And leaders must understand the hopes, dreams and aspirations of those whom they purport to lead if they are to inspire those led to do what needs to be done. Eisenhower, speaking of the essence of leadership, said, "By leadership we mean the art of getting someone to do what you want done because he wants to do it" -- not because has to do it. Leadership is about inspiration and encouragement; it is not about command and control. But to inspire, to encourage, to motivate, we must know our people, and what really makes them tick: What are their dreams? What do they desire in life?

Only they can tell us the answers to those questions, and they are very personal answers. A person will share this only when he feels safe, and when he or she trusts you. Empathy elicits trust -- and when people feel our empathy they know they are safe with us.

In short, my encounter with Sophia helped me to see the importance of getting "behind the mask" to experience the real person. And there are two masks -- I have to remove my own, then I can help others remove theirs. Once I get behind the mask, to the real person, I am able to know myself, use my own leadership gifts, and help others use theirs. Sophia's name, as I mentioned earlier, is the Greek word for "wisdom," and Sophia is the Goddess of Wisdom. In Homer's Odyssey she appears under the guise of a teacher, a mentor, to guide a young man in the search for his father.

As leaders, ultimately, we are mentors -- we are the embodiment of wisdom in the organizations and groups which we lead. Our mentoring starts with our own wisdom, our willingness to remove our masks. But ultimately that wisdom must transform into a genuine empathy for and interest in those whom we lead. This empathy not only allows us to understand what we need to do to inspire others. It also enables us to help others discover their own leadership skills -- thus the leader, ultimately, must always become the mentor, the teacher and the guide.