It’s a time of year when disguises and costumes are in fashion.  Middle aged men dress up in red and hug strangers.  People dress up in party clothes for office parties and New Year’s bashes.  Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to shovel my driveway wearing a Santa hat.  We humans love to pretend, if only for a few weeks a year.

Of course, it’s important that we know what is make-believe and what’s real.  You can only pretend for so long. Eventually, the real you comes out for better or for worse.  A recent interaction with a client illustrates the “better” part of that equation.

I was lucky enough to be working with the senior leadership team of a prominent hotel chain.  We held our meeting at a unique retreat center owned and operated by a prominent business family.

One evening, I had dinner with the general manager of this retreat center. Earlier in the day, I had noticed that the CEO of the hotel group had jumped up to help an arriving executive with her luggage.  Another member of the team commented to the colleague (with a knowing smile), “Once a hotelier, always a hotelier.”

Over dinner, I decided to probe a little.  “What makes a great hotelier,” I asked my companion.

The general manager, who has spent his entire career from the age of 16 in the business, paused.  Then he smiled, “We are servants.  That’s the heart of a great hotelier – being willing to do anything to serve a guest.”

It struck me: great hoteliers are really servants cleverly disguised as bellmen, concierges, general managers, and yes – CEO’s. They’re disguised, but their costume can’t obscure their core, the way they really think. Those beliefs can’t help but ooze through to their behavior.  And when CEO’s are really porters in disguise (or at this time of year, when a king is a child in disguise), watch out.  Power is unleashed.  People are attracted to that.  It’s simply not normal.

This conversation also got me thinking: What would people say lies beneath my disguise – and yours?