Like most public settings, many institutions are moving to “mask friendly” contexts. I thought I’d pause and reflect on the wearing of masks over the last couple of years as well as what it has been like to lead from underneath a mask.
Like the rest of the world, I started using masks in social and work settings in 2020. Early on, I recognized the extent to which my emotions or even physical state could be literally masked. I would smile at people, and it did not appear from their eyes that they recognized a smile under my mask. On another occasion, my swollen cheek from a sore tooth was completely invisible, despite what I thought was my obvious discomfort. At times, I have really appreciated the level of anonymity that came with wearing a mask.
Very recently, I unexpectedly lost my only and younger brother. My immense grief and shock were largely invisible because of my mask. Much of my professional community was unaware of my loss. I continued to work. I attended meetings. I spoke in public settings. I attended events. I led. Some days, suffocated by grief, I cried. I blinked rapidly to clear my eyes. Sometimes a blink was really a long eye closing that served as a momentary escape. I work in an extraordinarily collegial and supportive environment. Yet, my grief was easily concealed by the mask.
My experiences have really made me reflect on the things as a leader, colleague, mentor, and teacher, that I did not see over the last couple of years. Did I miss someone’s grief? Was someone smiling at me and I missed it? Was someone signalling to me fear and the need for support and I missed that too? My guess is that this all happened at some point, with someone or multiple people. While I could potentially see emotions through only eyes, I was not really looking. Until my own anguish escalated to unbearable levels, lived very privately under my mask, it really didn’t occur to me what I might be missing in those around me. These revelations have really inspired reflection and have changed my leadership.
Masks can provoke a different type of social isolation. There is undoubtedly something lost in our ability to be relating humans if when wearing masks, we are not deliberate in our seeing. More challenging is the idea that people are intentionally being invisible. This can’t be good for society. There is immense risk with this level of invisibility to an individual – particularly for those whose safety may depend on only what can be expressed through their eyes when wearing a mask.
Eyes are great conveyers of emotions. Even when isolating only the eyes on a face, you can still see emotions without any other part of the face being visible. There is an old saying that eyes are the windows into the soul. This is true only to the extent that individuals intentionally want to see into another’s soul. Wearing a mask requires looking into someone’s eyes and being intensely present for an extra second or two. Admittedly, for me, there is some discomfort at thinking about this level of intimacy, despite seeing myself as a deeply caring person and empathetic leader.
While many institutions have moved to “mask friendly” environments, masks are here to stay. Many will continue to mask. So long as there are masks, we need to be intentional about looking and really seeing. As a leader, there is an extra obligation to see, despite — and beyond — the mask.
Donna Kotsopoulos is dean of the faculty of education at Western University.