Behind the mask – a short story about identity, status and dressing up as a 6′ 5″ lion

Around 2 years ago I decided to say “Yes” more to ensure that I regularly step out of my comfort zone and into my experimental learning zone.

One thing I said “yes” to recently was an invitation to dress up as the mascot of a small charity I support (Access Sport) and hang around in the corporate head offices of a company I know very well.  The mascot of the charity is a 6.5 foot furry lion outfit that I have worn previously as part of a number of PR stunts to raise the profile of the charity (including a 5k run and testing out a BMX track – I still have the scars!)

The occasion this time was very different though as I found myself stood in the main plaza of a huge corporate head office at the very time that the 3,000 or so people who worked in the building would walk past me on their way to lunch.

Whilst the costume was familiar to me, the change in the way people engaged with me and how I engaged with them fascinated me.  I know many people in this building but when I spotted them it soon became obvious that they didn’t have a clue who I was and, as I had decided the character was mute, I had no way of revealing my identity to them.  It soon dawned on me that the two hours in the lion suit were to be a fascinating experiment in exploring ideas of identity, power and status.

Firstly I became fascinated as to how people interacted with me.  I spotted many good friends and people I have known for years and, despite knowing that my identify was hidden, I still felt a little pang of sadness and anxiety that they didn’t recognise me and felt helpless in trying to correct the situation due to my mute-ness and my mask.

I found it equally fascinating how people reacted to the difference of having a huge lion in a sports kit walking around the corporate environment.  People reacted with a mixture of surprise, joy or fright at the prospect of having to interact with something so unusual.  (I found that while women were more likely to smile and give me a hug, men tended to either look at their shoes and speed up their pace or to smile and then pretend to wrestle and fight me!)

A few folk knew it was me in the suit and I broke my vow of silence with them, however they said that it was extremely difficult to engage with me as they could only see the lion’s face – I found this intriguing as I’ve spoken to them many times on teleconferences where they couldn’t see me!

Whilst the lion outfit changed the way in which others interacted with me I found it even more fascinating how it altered the way I interacted with others.

I found that I was more willing to take risks associated with individuals who I have never met or who I recognised as being in a position of power.  When I saw very senior leaders, my anonymity gave me permission to approach them, waving furiously or doing a little dance to attract their attention.  When I saw people I had never met before my mask gave me permission to approach them to shake their hands or give them a high five.  The outfit also gave me a reason to interact more with behind-the-scenes characters such as security guards, cleaners and caterers – people who I rarely talk with in my usual ‘human’ state.

Whilst I felt a sense of loss and helplessness when others didn’t recognize me I also felt a sense of liberation that my anonymity (and unusual appearance) seemed to make me immune to the perceptions of power and status that I usually perceived in this organisation and enabled me to challenge and disturb these norms in ways that I normally wouldn’t consider.

The whole experience confirmed to me the ideas that i) identity is created and affirmed through our relationships with others, ii) our identity and sense of self is simultaneously constraining and enabling and iii) status and power are major factors that need to be challenged to effect change.

As I packed the outfit into the huge kit bag at the end of the lunch break I was left with a sense of the power of metaphorical masks in organizational life, how they can both enable and constrain challenge, disturbance and creativity and how much choice we actually have over which masks we chose to wear or not.

What masks do you wear that inhibit your challenge, creativity and personality from shining through?

What perceptions of power and status do you hold that inhibit you acting more on your instincts, gut feel and intuition?

For those of you interested in experimenting with real masks – I have access to a lovely lion outfit you may borrow!