You may know my story: how I was born with a congenital facial disfigurement, how, as a child, I had lots of corrective facial surgery, and how, at the age of four, I was gifted an artificial eye and dark glasses to hide my facial flaws, so that I would look more “normal” and blend in.
I call that the beginning of my “life behind the mask”, and that’s how I lived – covered up, concealed, and hidden from almost everyone – until 2009, when a series of what seemed like random events literally brought me to my knees in despair and I realized that I needed to find a way to quit hiding myself and let you (as in everyone I connect with) see the real me. It was a profoundly challenging and painful process to drop my masks; I had to literally re-learn how to SHOW UP and be seen, for real, which was an unexpected and unwelcome interruption to life behind the mask.
The learning was and is massive. I learned how my physical masks were a powerful metaphor for the masks we all wear. I learned how normal it is for women to hide at work and in leadership, and how rare (and scary) it is to be truly seen (and heard). I learned about the power or, rather, the disempowerment of masking: why we do it, how we do it, what it costs to mask and what there is to gain from taking our professional masks off.
I have been studying all this ever since and I want to share one of the lessons I have been thinking about today after speaking with a prospective client who is ready to quit because she can no longer ignore what she calls “Institutional Injustice” I want to talk about the link between masking and success.
I wish I could tell you that it’s simply impossible to be successful if you are not being authentic and not showing up for real… Alas, that wouldn’t be exactly true: the woman I spoke to today was actually in line for vice president of her organization. So, you can succeed. Lots of us do. We put our “work head” on, we blend in nicely, play the game, say what needs to be said to get the applause and nod even when we don’t approve.
And it works.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned. Too many of us climb and climb and climb and we get to our ivory tower and can’t remember WHO we are any more, or what we stand for. Too many of us have the trappings of success and yet feel trapped behind the very mask that allowed us to be a great cultural fit and get the said trappings.
And too many of our biggest organizational and industrial challenges are going unresolved, or getting worse, because to speak up about it, to call things out, to whistle-blow or to rock boats would require us to put our unmasked heads above the parapet and risk blowing “cover”.
We’ve advanced amazingly well wearing masks. Collectively, we’ve gone further than we ever thought possible. We’ve got people planning to go to Mars for their holiday, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, driverless cars – all part of normal everyday life. I’d say that points to some exceptional successes. But, on the other hand, we have massive inequalities, corruption, violence, health pandemics, illiteracy, hunger, poverty, injustice, extortion – to name but a few – also a normal part of day to day life.
Some of us with undisclosed answers, solutions, ideas, insights, intelligence, hunches, information, and those who see the unspoken issues and brokenness, like the lady I spoke to today, wouldn’t dare show up, speak up or shake things up – we are too busy trying hard to fit in, be liked, applauded and PAID. This is not a criticism; it’s more a plea and encouragement.
On my way to learning how to show up without my physical masks, I learned how I wore metaphorical masks on so many other levels that I’m still on the unmasking journey. So I write as one on the way to unmasked leadership. I have decided not to compromise my truth, or my right to speak, walk and work in it, any longer. I write to share what I am learning in a deep and personal way.
Although we may climb high wearing masks, there is a fulfilment and sense of purpose that comes as a result of radical authenticity. It is the stuff that the power to influence and inspire meaningful, necessary change is made of. But be ready: it will almost invariably cost you your masks too.
I’m learning that true success IS worth it!
Dion Johnson is an International Strategic Ally & Master Coach to Women in Senior Leadership. Dubbed “The Womanologist”, Dion is masterful in her capacity to support WOMEN going through challenging professional processes and who want to keep evolving as credible high-level influencers in their field. Especially when it’s hard.
Dion is a multi-award-winning women’s champion with diversity, inclusion and authentic feminine influence at the heart of her work.
She works behind the global leadership scenes as a master coach and trusted advisor to some of the most influential women across sectors and industries.
She is challenging and changing the inner narrative about what it means to be a credible influencer in today’s fast-changing work space. Her clients are chief executives, directors and heads of departments across sectors and industries, because Dion knows that when these women truly thrive (not just act like they are thriving), so do boards, organizations, industries and, ultimately, our world.
Dion was born with a pronounced facial disfigurement and from the age of four until well into her forties, she wore an artificial eye and dark glasses to “mask” her facial flaws. Her story of unmasking and learning how to SHOW UP and BE SEEN, for real, in her own leadership and life is a powerful metaphor that is now captivating and inspiring senior women across the globe to “Show Up, Speak Up and Shake Things the Hell Up”, authentically, within their sphere of influence too.
Dion’s leader development framework, “The WOMAN INFLUENCE Blueprint(TM)”, is transforming the way women around the globe see themselves and show up to the coalface of senior marketplace leadership. Dion’s second book, “WOMAN of INFLUENCE: Five Contemporary ideas about being a woman in senior leadership at such a time as this”, is set for release in Autumn 2017.
Get in touch for an initial conversation about how Dion can add value and meet your leader development support needs.