I Don’t Want To Live In a World Without Masks

What we lose when our leaders and organizations are radically transparent

Masks are transformative devices. Religions and cults have long understood their power as symbols of beauty and honesty, and in many cultures they are used in rituals of initiation, reverence, mourning, and inclusion, but also to express shame, guilt, and exclusion, as the totems of secret societies. Masks are the epitome of the literal and the symbolic, of the utilitarian and the transcendent. They are worn for physical protection (think of fencing, oxygen masks, or the anti-pollution masks we have grown accustomed to seeing in Japan or China) but also for the purpose of disguise and for performances, on and offstage. This relationship is intricate: Performance can be an act of protection, and any protective measure is also always a performance.

We perform in business of course as well, not just in the sense of delivering on tasks and accomplishing goals set by others or ourselves, but also in the sense of developing our own narrative, choreographing our interactions, and playing a role, in fact, many different roles. This type of performance has become ever more essential to our “performance review” since the knowledge economy has automated many “objective” tasks and left us only with the fuzzy space of “subjective” tasks: building and cultivating relationships; managing our reputation and perception; curating and sharing tacit knowledge; earning respect, popularity, authority, and influence. As Matthew B. Crawford claims in his book Shopclass As Soulcraft, we have become “symbolic knowledge workers”:

“A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you.”

If one were to grossly exaggerate, one could say we are no longer what we make or do— we are whom others think we are. We are how much liked or feared we are. We are what we arenot told. This has far-reaching implications. When every somewhat mechanical task representing a linear cause-effect correlation is eradicated from our to-do’s, all that’s left for us is to-be, to build and live up to the promise of our personal brand, to show up and show off. That’s highly volatile and vulnerable terrain, and many of us need more than just one persona to navigate it. Thus, we are all wearing masks while we are at work—alternate identities that enable us to navigate alternate realities. The same is true for us as consumers. We put on masks and try on different identities as we enter the showrooms, as we buy and buy into the products, services, cultures, and values of the brands we revere. Masks represent the allure of another life, with all its promises and risks.

We spend most of our professional lives rehearsing for our one big moment of fame and fail to realize that our rehearsals are indeed the show. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live,” Adam Phillips writes in his book Missing Out — In Praise of Our Unlived Lives. Curiously, we tend to mostly deny the possibility of “other lives” in business, and perhaps more than ever before in the history of business, we stubbornly refuse to accept organizations and business leaders who, in the most extreme form, betray us or lie to us, or, in a milder form, switch between multiple facets of their character, switch between different identities. In the name of authenticity, we are growing increasingly skeptical of organizations and leaders wearing a mask.

This tendency has been exacerbated by the paradigm of “radical transparency” that characterizes the new era of social business in a digital world. “Un-masking” has become the cri de coeur, the main order of business in an age that heralds authenticity as the Holy Grail and ultimate means of business success. Peter Fulda, in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, demands “Leaders, Drop Your Masks,” and he postulates the most frightening of all imperatives: “Just be yourself.” Authenticity! Who would not embrace it? Many business thinkers want us to believe that being yourself—or better, appearing to be yourself, being perceived as yourself—is the path to true and lasting respect and recognition.

So it may seem counter-intuitive, yes, almost illegitimate, to hold up the merits of disguise, of quite literally wearing a mask. But I insist there are plenty: Masks allow individuals, groups, or entire organizations to “try on” a different identity. They allow us to “fake it until we become it,” to explore our alter egos, the other, unlived life. To be somebody else is the first step to becoming somebody else. Only by pretending to be somebody else or something else can we transform ourselves.

From the Grimm’s fairy tales to the carnival in Venice, from Halloween to Mardi Gras, fromThe Mask to the mask ball in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, from Greek drama to super-heroes like Batman, from bank robbers, assassins, and executioners at the guillotine, from the Ku Klux Klan to Anonymous, the hacker organization—masks add a dimension to our lives that lies outside of our day-to-day lives. Whether it is noble and good, hedonist and frivolous, or dangerous and even criminal, masks hide the dark side, or at least a side that does not conform to our social norms or protocols. They indicate that what we see is not what we get, and that things are not what they seem to be. Masks play tricks with our mind and challenge our “auto-pilot,” distorting our perception and judgment, and introducing new parameters that empower us to deviate from preconceived notions and pre-assigned courses.

Putting on masks allows us to reveal and speak the truth, as the fools did at medieval courts. Masks do not show what is right, but they make us believe in the existence of something that is true–they literally mean more, and suggest we look and think twice, because there is always another reality, another life that is possible. This revelation, of one’s relative position in the world, is a humbling one, and it is this very humility that is more authentic than anything else.

We habitually doubt the feelings of others, and our own. Is it a mask or is it real? This is the driving question of all flirtatious interactions, of any hint of romance. It is the doorway to hidden meaning. Likewise, a brand manifests the implicit. It serves as a mask for its leaders, employees, and customers. Referring to Georg Simmel’s concepts of secrecy and adornment, Sasha Newell writes in an article based on his field study of the use of global brands in Cote D’Ivoire: “Brands function much like masking practices, concealing even as they reveal, using the visible to hide/signify the invisible.” And further:

“The secrecy of what lies beneath the masked performance provides an unstable ambiguity in which it is always possible that the surface is that which it represents. Brands always contain this instability between appearance and the genuine, for all are ultimately copies whose uncertain authenticity we cover up with public secrecy.”

Brands as masks allow us to be strangers, just for one moment. They let us be (business) romantics.

In a time in which Google, the world’s most valuable brand, boasts it knows more about us than we know ourselves, putting on a mask is one of the last remaining ways to keep that knowledge for ourselves, to keep our selves for ourselves. It is the very public act of demarcating our privacy. By masking us, by pretending to be somebody else, we protect ourselves from the regime of complete comprehensibility. Let alone the perils of pervasive facial recognition, in light of which possessing more than just one facial identity is quickly becoming a human right.

I am not sure about you, but I don’t want to live in a world of full and permanent recognition, of absolute taxonomies. I don’t want to live in a world of radical transparency. I don’t want to have only the naked truth. I don’t want to live in a world without masks.

Co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business; author of “The Business Romantic” and “The End of Winning”

Co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business; author of “The Business Romantic” and “The End of Winning”