"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, 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. This continued despite restrictions on interactions in the society being lifted; the public wearing of masks was still considered normal. In fact, to appear in public without a mask, would elicit admonitions 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. This event was organized in the brooding shadow of COVID-19. The majority of the participants were experienced school leaders and the 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, this engagement was obviously cathartic for many and the successive sharing revealed the challenges faced by school leaders in the room. One participant confessed to having no other experience of school leadership other than with the looming presence of COVID! On the other hand, there were experienced leaders who conceded that leading during COVID provided an entirely new challenge. The outcome of the conversation was that many leaders do not focus on their own well-being as they do for others. And that this has led to considerable stress.
With so many leaders in the same context, it was clear that the leaders present had concluded 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 emboldens leaders by concealing their 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 isn’t it also about being cool under pressure? This unconscious mask-wearing by leaders provided an escape from the reality of how they were feeling while focusing on the job. But where and when can school leaders remove their masks and just let go? And will self-unmasking lead to better wellness or wellbeing?
These questions troubled me as I observed the conversation on Zoom. Everyone had masks off and were sharing openly and frankly. Masks were off on two levels. The first level was the physical level, where professional discourse could be had and so no one needed 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. We could be human again and share our frustrations, worries and anxieties. We were in a group of non-judgmental professionals - like minded and experienced-partners. Discourse on shared challenges encouraged school leaders to feel safe and remove their masks.
So why do we wear masks and what might be the implications for school leader support going forward? Also, for how long can we carry the burden of wearing masks before we personally implode? Masks were devised to provide protection. In COVID-19, it reduced the risks of infecting others. Perhaps leaders believed that the masks they wear protect their followers in some way. 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 hindered by the mask. So maybe, our masks reveal more than we think to our followers.
The research has found a high turnover rate for international school leaders. The looming shadow of an axe dropping any minute lurks. With this pressure constantly turned on, they wear masks of calmness and authority 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 mask and breathe easily. So even when things get tough, who can they speak with?
This oscillatory tension between social performance and authenticity may be rooted in the province of psycho-analytical theory. 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? Oscar Wilde suggested that only when man dons a mask do we see their truth, suggesting that man is not himself without the protection of a mask. Yet, as we switch from mask to mask, to what extent do we lose our actual selves?
The quote I used to start this article is powerfully 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 that 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? Is it idealistic to foster trust when we hypocritically wear masks in our daily interactions? Who am I protecting when I wear these masks?
Perhaps, COVID-19 is a real opportunity for us to examine our authenticity as leaders.
"We all wear masks...metaphorically speaking…" -Jim Carrey, The Mask.
Megel R. Barker EdD is the Middle School Principal at ABA Oman International School