Fake Plastic Trees

Are you tired? Not “I only got three hours of sleep last night…” tired, but weary, soul heavy, worn-out tired. Have you ever used a paper towel to scrub the stove? It works for a few swipes, but then it rapidly starts falling apart and turning to mush. The paper towel wasn’t meant to be a scrubbing pad, and it doesn’t last long when it is used as one.

We are like that paper towel. When we are busy doing things we weren’t meant to do, we don’t last. The very fiber of our being starts to unravel, and we get sloppy and fall apart. One of the things we were never meant to do is pretend.

In “Fake Plastic Trees,” Thom Yorke of Radiohead sings about a girl who is trying to get rid of herself with fake plastic things. Then he sings about her guy who is a plastic surgeon (but gravity always wins). Finally, he tells us he has a fake plastic love who looks and tastes like the real thing (but isn’t), and he wants to run. The chorus between each line is “it wears her out”, “it wears him out”, “it wears me out.” The song ends with him saying:

“If I could be who you wanted, all the time.”

Sometimes we aren’t just doing things we weren’t meant to do, we are trying to be something we weren’t meant to be. Leadership seems to demand that we are nearly perfect. That we always have a solution, always know what to do, and are never uncertain or afraid. Like a plastic tree is never uneven or imperfect or wilted, we think we should “look” a certain way, “act” a certain way, and be who they want us to be all the time. However, the plastic tree isn’t alive. It can’t grow or change or interact with the world around it. It may look pretty, but it’s dead.

Trying to be perfect isn’t just unreal, it is also exhausting. Soul crushing, mind numbing, grinding you to powder, exhausting. Trying to be anything we are not is exhausting. I’m not talking about modifications to our outward behavior to be polite, kind, or to make others feel safe. Simple manners and appropriate interactions with other people are not the kind of pretending that sucks the life out of someone.

I’m talking about pretending that you have all the answers. Pretending that you are not stressed or worried or uncertain. Pretending that you are unaffected or unemotional. Pretending that you don’t have problems that are bigger than you think you can handle. The kind of problems that everyone has, but as a leader we don’t want anyone to know.

It wears you out.

No one gets into leadership with the expectation that it will steal their joy and energy. Over time though, the vision they had of doing great things and leading well gives way to the reality of endless days of micromanaging and getting by. Many leaders think the cause of their exhaustion is their calendar, their team, or the circumstances. They think that changing these things or controlling the world around them will eventually lead to the internal feeling of success and fulfillment they are lacking. It won’t.

Authenticity and transparency are the keys that unlock your potential as a leader. We hear these words a lot more now than we used to, but I’m not sure people understand them.

Authenticity is the quality of being genuine or real. I watched a show once where they made cakes that looked like other things. A phone, fruit, a book, almost anything you can think of could be made from cake and icing and look real. The illusion was very convincing until they cut the cake. Assuming the baker was competent, it’s not a bad surprise to cut into a phone and find delicious cake, unless you really needed a phone.

Authenticity is representing yourself as a real human, not a fake plastic one. This comes with the challenge of allowing people to know you have faults, and fears, and failures. This requires courage and trust. This is uncomfortable, especially if you have spent your life hiding behind plastic and pretending to be something you are not. The delicious surprise is that it takes less effort and causes less stress. It allows you to relax and focus your attention and energy to moving your team forward instead of trying to maintain your façade.

Transparency is the state of being seen through. I know there are some negative connotations there, but let’s look at the positive ones. If I handed you an opaque container, told you it held water, and asked you to drink from it, you would have to trust me a lot. If I handed you a clear glass full of water and asked you to drink it, you would do so with much more confidence. Transparency increases trust.

When someone can “see through” you with respect to your intentions and motives, it allows them to quickly determine if they can align with you—in other words, trust you. Transparency is letting people “in” on the goals, the plans, the reasons, as well as your concerns, fears, and hesitations. When people are “in”cluded they feel and act like owners. When people feel they have a stake in the process as well as the outcome, they maintain and protect what they are helping to create.

As leaders, we owe it to ourselves and to those we serve to expend our energy on efforts that move our team and our mission forward. When we stop pretending and allow our people into our real lives, we create an environment that encourages them to do the same. I don’t want to be a fake plastic leader. I want to be honest about my humanity with the people I am asking to trust me. I’m not superman, and I am learning that no one needs or wants me to be. They want me to be real and to see them as real which is refreshing and energizing, and it is The Kimray Way.