The Leader's "Invisible Mummer's Costume"
Updated: Nov 25, 2018
Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. - November 24, 2018
My hometown city of Philadelphia has its share of distinctive traditions, including the annual event held on New Year's Day: The Mummer's Parade. True-blue Philadelphians have shivered through many a cold first day of the year clutching hot coffee or something stronger, watching the fancy divisions and listening to the string bands. The costumes are a sight to behold - it takes the clubs a year to make them, feathers and sequins and colors and all. The mummers (an old English term for a masked mime at holiday time) then strut, play instruments and entertain thousands, everyone involved usually freezing to death. I grew up with a fondness for this peculiar spectacle because my father was born and raised on South Broad Street in Philly, deep in Mummer world, and he loved to play the string band favorites on his own banjo and guitar.
The image of the mummer's costume is what comes to my mind when I try to explain to new leaders that, from the moment of their appointment or election, the way they are "showing up" for the people they lead has changed. If they hold any power or authority over others, that difference is going to be perceptible to those who are being led. This orientation to a person of power is almost unconscious, an inherited instinct from our primate ancestry. The leader as a person becomes inseparable from their role, until such time as they might no longer hold that kind of power. Now, when said leader comes into the room -- doesn't matter if it is a meeting room or a social gathering or workplace -- he or she may assume that they have entered the room as a regular person, just like the next one. They often don't realize that they've marched in while wearing their invisible mummer's costume, official feathers and all! The role is unmistakable.
What's the effect? Well, in most organizations and in most cultures, there is a natural form of courteous deference, appreciation, and attention that flows readily to those in leadership -- it even happens in the informal and egalitarian culture of the US. It's true that for some groups that value collegiality and de-emphasize authority, there may not be much visible effect. But even in such groups, the leader most likely notices slight shifts in how people relate to them once they take office.
It's a pleasant experience to be the one others defer to or look after...and herein lies the mischief. The more significant the power or authority, the more vulnerable the leader is to a gradual inflation of the ego, a slowly-creeping narcissism that grows under conditions of solicitous followers, efficient support staff, and the attention and admiration of many. I discovered this in myself.
For six years, I held the position of Corporate VP for Human Resources for a multi-billion dollar global company. There's a longer story there for another writing, but suffice to say there are a lot of perks to being an executive, and one gets used to them. It was great when someone else managed my office perfectly, when the computer got fixed 'asap', when I was met and escorted on business trips, when there was always a seat for me at a gathering. All kinds of things happened behind the scenes, and I didn't have to deal with them. Of course, there is a reason for some of this level of support; it's related to the demands placed on the leader's time and judgment. It makes little sense to use up the scarce resource of leadership time with many tasks that capable others can do just as easily.
When I decided to move on and start my consulting company, just 'Me-Myself-and-I', my Introvert Self was at first quite delighted to be on my own for a change.... until one day when I realized I had to mail an express package to a client, and I found myself in line at the Post Office. "Wait!", I thought, "Isn't there anyone who is supposed to do this for me?" "No!" was the answer -- "YOU get to stand in line." Then there was the day when I was preparing to go to Los Angeles for a meeting of a charitable organization on whose Board I served, only to realize that I had indeed made my own plane reservations (so proud of myself!), but had totally forgotten to book a hotel (Oops). At least I remembered it the day before I left, rather than in the airport at LA, but still -- it unnerved me a bit.
Another time I was so frustrated by being on the phone for hours with computer software "help lines" that I wanted to burst into tears and hurl the whole machine out my third-floor office window. (I didn't.) Of course, over time I developed the necessary ring of supportive services -- an on-call computer expert, bookkeeper and accountant -- and I mastered the various technologies needed to run my company as a solo practice.
But more importantly, these small encounters with my "not-a-big-cheese-anymore" reality were little flashes of awareness that prompted more serious reflection about the interior dimension of this change of status in the world. I realized the degree to which I was used to being listened to without challenge; the ways in which I was used to being accommodated by others; the assumption that in some way, I belonged among the privileged and the powerful -- even though I was often very intimidated by the same. Unfortunately, I won't ever really know what experiences, relationships, or life-learnings I missed as a result of moving around inside that bubble, that invisible but real role-costume. I'm glad that at this point, enough time has passed that I think it's been set aside. That's fine with me, although I still look longingly at business class when Mike and I make our way back to the coach seats on a plane! Motivation to accumulate those points....
So why do I share this experience and this image on my blog? It is because I have met so many leaders, especially the anxious or reluctant or insecure ones, who fail to recognize that they now occupy a space that is bigger than their personal selves. They don't understand the importance of tending oneself and one's choices with new sensitivities, once in leadership. For example, it's important to be disciplined about giving your opinion on an issue last, or sometimes not at all, to make sure you have really heard what others truly think before putting your own, automatically weightier, view out there. It's important to thank and acknowledge others who are doing the work that makes your own role possible and easier. It's important to make time to be with close friends or family or leadership colleagues or therapists or spiritual directors -- in other words, people who aren't under your authority or know you intimately enough not to be distracted by your costume -- people whose words you can trust, even if it is tough love when you need it.
So care for your own body, mind, and spirit, and care for your "costume" -- the more elaborate, the more carefully to respect it, because someday you'll need to return the costume in good shape. That might happen if you retire, if you find your role involuntarily terminated, or if you serve out your leadership term. Whatever the process, you will realize that the inflated role-self is not your real self.
And then, you will need to be at home and healthy in yourself as the unique and valuable person you are, with or without feathers!