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Leadership Lessons: See the leader behind the managers mask

by Chris Turley

How I unmasked my leadership style

If you’d asked my colleagues about me 10 years ago, I’m sure that they’d have been quick to tell you how cold, direct and uncaring I could be and I’m sure the words grumpy, angry and disagreeable would come up pretty soon, along with some more savoury negatives.

By contrast, if asked, I would have told you that I was pretty relaxed and easy going, passionate about my work but personable, and genuinely cared about my colleagues, a view which would have been endorsed by friends and sporting team mates.
A slight difference! Almost like two different people? 
I found, with increasing regularity that at work, my reasons and intentions were misinterpreted as a direct result of my own behaviour, I thought my message, motivation and state of mind were crystal clear to see, but it I was wrong. My physical presence, tone of voice, body language, eye contact and general demeanour, were leading to translation problems on a daily basis.

By way of unbiased example; I attended a week long residential leadership course, and on the first morning before breakfast I met a guy on the stairs and he asked me a if I thought the games had already started and we’d been deliberately deprived of hot water the night before. I responded ‘cheerily’, that I thought it was very unlikely.
Later that day, I found myself in a team including the guy on the stairs (Stuart), where we were asked to share our first impressions of each other. When it came to Stuart, he turned to me and recounted the tail of our meeting on the stairs, and the totally negative effect it had on him.
As the week progressed the team worked very closely together over long and deliberately stressful hours, and these people became friends rather than colleagues. We got to appreciate each others motivation, intentions and strengths as well as areas for improvement. I saw how the others reacted to me when I behaved as I do with my friends, they were exposed to the ‘real’ me rather than the ‘work mask’.

I certainly hadn’t made a conscious decision, and I don’t really know how or why this situation developed, however on reflection I’m sure it has something to do with insecurities or a lack of confidence, perceived or real, but I had unwittingly developed a work mask.

The result of these realisations was that I wanted to change my approach, drop the ‘work mask’, and that in itself created problems. I couldn’t just turn up on Monday exhibiting different behaviour, confusing everyone, including me. I decided that with my close colleagues (senior team and direct reports) I would be honest, open and explain my situation, and encourage them to challenge me if in anyway confused by my approach. Over the coming weeks I found myself naturally checking that my meaning was fully understood, because I was calmly and clearly explaining myself and checking the message received, that despite some puzzled looks ( Oh right, we were expecting a shafting ) there was very little confusion, in general the change was recognised and welcomed.
Of course my change was viewed, by some, as only temporary, and that when the pressure was on I would revert as old habits die hard. So I had to make sure that even when provoked, the approach remained on track, not always easy when the brown stuff hits the fan.
It took time for people to get used to the ‘new’ work me  and I’d catch them watching when the pressure was on, but for me I felt more comfortable in myself, I was behaving naturally and was therefore calm and in control of myself, seeing the benefits both personally and for the team.

In business it’s vital that people can clearly read your condition, your state of mind, and they get exactly the message you intended, as a leader it’s critical that your colleagues read your signals loud and clear eliminating any potential confusion. My ‘work mask’ got in my way every day and in no way do I regret letting it slip.

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