The Don Draper Problem: Root Out Your False Narratives

We can remember times when even if we meant to say things straight, our words felt awkward or forced because we were hiding a particular fact or issue. Just as false notes can ruin an actor's performance, the same is true for business persona.
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We've all sat through a speech or job interview and thought "something is off here" with your speaker or counterpart, "I'm not feeling comfortable." We've seen what goes wrong when someone has been promoted and exaggerates their accomplishments to impress new colleagues. We regularly read stories about highly qualified applicants for head coach or executive positions (such as Manhattan basketball coach Bill Masiello or former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson) who despite having impressive credentials embroider or hide information on their resumes.

We can remember times when even if we meant to say things straight, our words felt awkward or forced because we were hiding a particular fact or issue. All of us can be tempted to "spin" to protect ourselves in a situation where we feel vulnerable or desperate for relief from a problem -- or to prop up a part of a presentation. Just as false notes can ruin an actor's performance, the same is true for your business persona.

Ideally, we all want to find the most authentic way to align our public selves with what we believe and value. We want to live up to Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, "Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession."

So an important step in the process is to audit your public persona for any Don Draper problems and anchor your communications to your authentic life story. In case you haven't watched the show, Mad Men is a dramatic series set in the 1960s portraying the lives of advertising executives in New York City as the city, and the country, undergoes a dramatic social transformation. The action is dominated by the men running the agencies, their secretaries, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Two women eventually rise to professional prominence despite the sexism of the 1950s and 1960s -- Peggy Olson, a copywriter (played by Elizabeth Moss) and Joan Hollaway, the office manager who becomes part of the inner circle (played by Christina Hendricks).

The protagonist of the series is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Creative Director at Sterling Cooper and a founding partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Storylines follow the business and clients of the agencies, and the turbulent personal lives of the characters, as they are buffeted by adultery, alcoholism, divorce, and drug use. Hamm has won a Golden Globe Award and been nominated for numerous Emmys for his portrayal of Draper -- the unsettlingly suave, handsome, serial philandering executive with great professional talent, a nasty drinking habit, and a secret.

Draper's personae are rooted in a deception that is a huge source of dramatic tension in the series, which is a great source for a story you wouldn't wish for in real life. Draper grows up in grim conditions, born to a prostitute mother and raised by a cruel and indifferent father and stepmother. After his father is killed in a farm accident, Draper is sent to an aunt and uncle who run a whorehouse. To escape this nightmare, as soon as he is of age, he enlists in the Army and is sent to fight in the Korean War. He is put under the command of a Lieutenant Donald Francis Draper who is killed in an explosion that Dick Whitman (before he became Don Draper) accidentally causes, which chars Draper's body beyond recognition. Seeing this, Whitman switches Lt. Draper's dog tags with his own. Whitman is sent home with Lt. Draper's coffin (now believed to be Whitman's) to offer the Army's regrets to Whitman's survivors. Whitman avoids the family upon re-entering the U.S., and begins his life as Donald Draper.

Draper's deceit is driven by his shame about his past and feeds his self-destructive behavior -- undercutting his business success with fear and evasion. He raises the suspicions of his rivals, wrecks his marriage, and even discards his brother, a dispossession that leads to a suicide. In an early episode in the series, a rival executive digs up his secret and tries to destroy Draper by going to management -- who ultimately live with the lie (at least for a while) because of Draper's talent.

Draper has built a business character on a counterfeit identity, and it helps him succeed but at a very high cost. In contrast, the Peggy Olson character rises to become a supervisor and doesn't hide her ambition or her challenges as a woman rising in a man's business, or her Bay Ridge, Brooklyn roots. She is seen as honest and trustworthy by clients and coworkers.

By season six, Draper's discomfort in his own skin has become intolerable to him and to the viewers. Imagine if he had used his gifts to tell his actual life story in the context of his work. It would have made him a far more attractive and compelling person. He could have connected his own difficult circumstances as a young boy and teen including abuse to show his empathy for the fears and aspirations of American consumers.

Think about how some of us add on layers of personae to gain others' approval while hiding parts of ourselves that we think are embarrassing. It's a fallacy of communicating that we have a "public" self we separate from our "private" self that has nothing to do with our performance in the workplace. A great deal of the literature around "authenticity" really comes down to this question of how we have the courage to talk about who we really are, not just who we want others to think we are.

I'm not talking about over-sharing on any level. We all should practice knowing where that line is. You know how important is it to listen actively, be curious about others, and have a sense of proportion about how much you talk about yourself.

You need to own the turning points of your backstory, and find a way to make them part of your public personality and statements. When you're vulnerable, people find you more approachable, and they will connect at a deeper level with your message. We've seen in our own social history how accountability to lynchpin personal truths propels a talented person to new levels. Bill Clinton couldn't make the final ascent to the presidency until he and Hilary talked about their marriage on 60 Minutes. Robin Roberts' career struggles at ABC gained new clarity and credibility when she opened up about being gay. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's success as the author of the bestselling book Lean In and a movement it spurred was due not because of her position and wealth but because she was able to communicate her own conflicts around children, intimacy, and marriage to women from vastly different backgrounds. It was Howard Shultz' openness about his own over-reaching ambition that cemented the early stages credibility of the Starbucks reboot that took place in 2008. Despite their opposing placement on the American political spectrum, Sarah Palin and Barack Obama inspired uniquely high passions among their followers because they could connect their personal journeys and struggles to their political agendas.

Even after I had written five books and had a fair bit of success, I found myself holding back from going to the next level. I'd spent years carefully hiding the evidence of the food addiction that had become a wrecking ball in my personal and professional life, and it wasn't until I started publicly sharing this part of my story and my recovery that I felt I had the integrity to play as big as I'm capable of playing. My desperation to hide my down cycles of food binging and weight gain not only meant avoiding speaking appearances and opportunities but cover-ups and false personae --my own Donald Draper problem.

Returning to Draper, the season six Mad Men finale offers a perfect parable for this point. In the finale, during a presentation to win the Hershey's account, Draper reveals for the first time the truth about his past, and how he privately cherished the relief of eating Hershey's bars during his adolescence living in a whorehouse. By telling the truth about who he was and reclaiming a shred of integrity, Draper is relieved and achieves some peace of mind. Upon hearing the truth in public where it can't be swept under the rug, the partners put Draper on leave, and entering season seven he is free at last to figure out how what his life story will be in the future. Setting high stakes goals for ourselves will never work if we're doing to hide a defining element of our lives or work.

Our intuitive intelligence is very good at sensing false notes. Everything you do signals to those around you whether you are the right person to be cast for a role. Although Steve Jobs was one of the most complex and driven business leaders in our history, because of his skill in managing his image and on stage performances, millions of us simply accepted him for his archetype, the anti-establishment, authoritarian genius. We now know that there was much more to Jobs than what he chose to convey; and he knew the role he had to play to hold our limited attention.

Draper's dramatic archetype is the Big City Slicker with a dark past -- a potential film-noir-type hero. By hiding that dark past, hurting others to protect his secret, and living with the guilt, Draper remained trapped and unable to move forward.

Like it or not, type casting is inevitable. People will draw broad-stroked impressions because the brain works that way; it is a categorization and mapping supercomputer. Since we are assigned roles whether we are natural-born performers or not, why not own this aspect of our professional brand as we do with our resumes, our written content, and visual appearance? An actor isn't just saying lines, she has an intention -- to get a response from other characters based on a wish, goal, or dream she has in her character. You need to find the elements of your life story that reflect your intentions -- and will make you more effective in your public performances.

In high school, I loomed larger than most of the guys and got the nickname "Big Mike." I was never crazy about the label and they do tend to stick in high school so when I went to college I decided to introduce myself as Michael. When I did so, that's how I became known and it changed my persona just enough -- in a way I wanted. Most of all, I learned that I could be proactive in how I presented myself and that without changing my personality I didn't have to go along with how others branded me. I had the freedom to change.

So do you.

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