We all tend to wear masks to some degree at various points in our lives to hide who we truly are from others. Yet the more we try to hide, the more we begin to retreat into ourselves.
“Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!” thundered the ominous-looking, disembodied head of the mercurial wizard.
“Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz, you ungrateful creatures?”
While Dorothy grew bolder and continued to challenge the increasingly boisterous apparition, Toto scurried away from the group and began tugging at a curtain located off to the side. Suddenly, the drapery began to part, allowing the surprised party of travelers to see a strange little man, frantically operating a series of levers and pulleys as he shouted into an over-sized microphone that seemed as large as his head. Turning sharply toward the growling dog, the startled character quickly realized he was exposed and that it was possible for Dorothy and her friends to see beyond the distraction of the smoke and mirrors that he hid behind. The true identity of the self-styled Wizard of Oz was now revealed.
Hoping to distract them from the truth, the diminutive charlatan turned and screamed into the microphone, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” as he tried desperately to hide himself once more.
But it was too late. The reality of “The Great and Terrible Oz” was on full display. In place of the larger-than-life leader that people had come to believe in, there stood a frightened, insecure traveling salesman; a simple shyster who used his ability to distort the truth to fool the public and promote himself.
There is a pivotal moment in the classic story of The Wizard of Oz that has become a common cultural reference. It is the moment that the true nature of the Great and Terrible Oz is finally revealed to Dorothy and her friends as the curtain is lifted on the frightened and insecure man who was pretending to be more than he was. As he is being exposed, in desperation he shouts, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" hoping to distract from the truth.
This scene from one of the most popular films of all time has been used ever since as a cautionary tale of how people attempt to hide their true nature from others, especially when it comes to leadership. Oscar Diggs, the true name of the wizard, was a fast-talking salesman who stretched and distorted the truth to promote himself and whatever he was selling. As one commentator writes, "Oz was an ordinary conman who used magic tricks and props to make himself appear great and powerful," neither of which he was. At heart, he was not a bad man, but as the citizens of Oz elevated him to a leadership position that he was neither qualified or ready for, he retreated ever more into himself, surrounded by guards and advisers whose allegiance was rooted in fear. Before long, the lies grew beyond the man and Diggs became trapped in a false persona of his own creation. Fear prevented him from revealing the truth.
A similar scenario can play out with anyone in positions of authority if we are not careful. We all tend to wear masks to some degree at various points in our lives to hide who we truly are from others (that's a topic for another discussion). Yet the more we try to hide from others, like Diggs, the more we begin to retreat into ourselves, becoming isolated and even fearful.
Weak leaders who are unsure of their abilities will sometimes find safety in hiding behind curtains of their own making. Strong leaders keep the curtains pulled back and open themselves up to those they lead. It takes more courage to open ourselves up and risk exposing our inadequacies than it does to overstate and self-promote our abilities. That failed to work for the Wizard of Oz and eventually it fails to work for anyone who tries it. Why? Because there will always be a courageous Dorothy who will challenge the Wizard and there will always be a tenacious Toto who will risk themselves to pull back the curtains of lies, injustice, or both.
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" yelled the wizard. In his last-ditch attempt to protect himself, he may have actually been giving Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion a great piece of advice. Those who hide themselves away behind curtains of deception usually have little that we should give our attention to.
Keep the curtains open. Let the truth in. Don't become trapped like the Wizard of Oz.