January 2019

Controlling the Narrative

I want to talk about Tomb Raider today. This may seem strange for a leadership blog, but it’s relevant, so stay with me here.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tomb Raider is the title of a series of video games that began back in 1996. The protagonist, Lara Croft, is an obscenely wealthy British woman. She’s an archaeologist, which in video game lingo means she solves puzzles and picks up loot (hence the name). In the original series there wasn’t much depth and Lara’s design was clearly intended to appeal to a young male demographic.

In 2013 the series was rebooted. This reboot was a big deal for focusing more on realism and creating a more in depth Lara Croft. Her proportions were no longer cartoonishly rendered and she was a much more emotional character. She had more selfless motivations, often related to helping others and defeating a shady organization of baddies.

Lara engaging in the well-known archaeological practice of hiding in trees.

However, as we moved into the modern era, it was getting harder to escape the fact that Lara still broke into ancient crypts and took items (often with a good dose of destruction on the way). There was little acknowledgement of the increasing awareness of the damage done by White Americans and Europeans to other cultures in the name of archaeology.

Lara’s less savory activities were somewhat tempered by the framing of the first two games. Although clearly inspired by actual history, the first game took place on a fictional mystical island, and the second took place in a fictional valley in remote Russia. The people and cultural artifacts she encountered felt realistic, but did not associate strongly with any current real world cultures.

Last year, the third game in the series was released, with the majority of action happening in Peru.

As reported by Variety, the developers stated upfront that this game would be the first to “tackle the political tension at the heart of the series“. In other words, they wanted to acknowledge the reality of a wealthy white woman hunting for treasure in a foreign land. Narrative director Jason Dozois also stated in an interview with VG247 that the game was “about learning that archaeology is also culture, and history, and language, and that involves people.” The developers included cultural elements of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec people in their game design, and utilized historians and cultural advisors. It is clear that a phenomenal amount of work went into this project.

And the result is, to be blunt, appalling.

Lara was always the hero of the story, but now all of sudden she’s surrounded by people of color telling her how amazing and brave she is, and how lucky they are that she’s there to save the day. She roams through their villages and goes freely into their homes, picking up items without any consequence or reaction. When locals fail at important tasks, the people turn to Lara, who performs perfectly and returns successfully each time.

And when she’s in trouble and needs to hide from the antagonists of the story, she dresses in a native costume, which is apparently so very convincing that none of the antagonists seem to notice her pale skin and British accent.

Lara, mistress of disguise.

One of the best characters in the story is a native Peruvian, Unuratu. She’s the leader of a hidden village and is in conflict with her brother-in-law over the future of their people. She’s intelligent, compassionate, motivated, and a fierce fighter. She’s the key to stopping the antagonists.

Until she’s shot and killed, so Lara can step in to save the day again.

Unuratu, also known as a woman who deserved better.

So what happened? We had developers who were aware of the minefield of running a game series called Tomb Raider. They listened to previous criticisms of a cognitive dissonance between Lara’s stated goals and her actions. They brought in experts to advise them. I believe them when they say they genuinely had good intentions.

The problem? In the end, they still made a white narrative.

They put a lot of work into adding elements of Indigenous cultures, but it’s not an Indigenous narrative. Every person of color in the game exists either to help Lara, or die in service of her story.

The truth is this shouldn’t even be Lara’s story. This should be Unuratu’s. It’s her culture, it’s her people, and it’s not up to some wealthy white European to be swinging in to save the day.

Literally swinging.

This isn’t just about a video game.

This about the organizations that will hire diversity experts and promote diversity training. They will appoint a few people of color to high level positions. They will talk boldly and openly about the need to do better. And in the end, they will still reinforce the exact same message as before: the white narrative is the one that matters.

Because the problem isn’t just a lack of training or a need for different leadership. The entire system is flawed. And if you really want to change things, you have to break the system.

At this point, some people will be scoffing. “Seriously?” they’ll say. “What do you expect? Are they just supposed to implode their own series?”

Well, yes.

Imagine a developer who is able to look at their material and say, this is not the world we live in anymore.

Imagine a developer who shows their protagonist making big mistakes and being confronted with the colonialism of her actions. Who is not welcomed, but sees the anger of those being affected.

Imagine a developer who allows their protagonist to step back and pass the torch to someone else.

Maybe it would implode the series. Or maybe it would launch something much greater.

Who can be sure?  We’ve yet to see someone try.

"Here. This isn't mine. It never was."

Sunday Reflection – What Gives You a Feeling of Value?

This past week I wrote about feeling valued at work (or the lack thereof).

So for this week’s reflection, I wanted to think a bit more on the theme of value. Who or what gives you a feeling of value? How do you express value for others?

When I think about feeling valued in the workplace, I think about my very first manager in my first permanent job.

What I remember is how well she listened. She wasn’t always able to take immediate action, but she always took me seriously and listened to me with compassion. She would take the time to really hear me out.

She also became an advocate for me. My first promotion was thanks to her. She brought me to meetings with high level managers, she encouraged me to work on projects on my own design, and she gave me recognition for my work.

These are all behaviors that I work to emulate, but to me, the key has always been listening. One of my former co-workers used to frequently quote the saying, “People may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” I’ve found that truly listening to people is one of the single most effective tools in helping them feel valued. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to find the perfect words, but so often, it’s not our words that matter. It’s simply how we make them feel.

Amplifying Voices – Katherine Giscombe: Women of Color Need Leaders of Courage

I was really pleased to come across this post on the Diversity Woman website, because Katherine Giscombe writes so beautifully and succinctly about what leaders need to do to truly make a difference in inclusion efforts, in particular for women of color.

To make a real difference, we need leaders who will directly challenge both policy and behavior that marginalize people. As Katherine says, “Women of color need champions who are familiar with the obstacles they face at work—and are willing to take the risks necessary to overturn them.”

Please read the full article here.

The Power of Value

I know the exact moment that led to me quitting my job.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time. But looking back, it’s astonishingly clear.

I was talking on the phone with a high level manager in my organization. We were talking about the position I was in with the training unit. It’s a little complicated to explain, but I was in something called a rotation, where I was technically still in my previous job, but was being “loaned out” to do the work of another position.

And I loved being in this rotation. I loved working in the training unit. And she was calling me to let me know she was going to be pulling me back into my former role. Now that alone was upsetting, but it wasn’t the triggering incident. What did change everything was that when I asked her why, she lied to me.

It wasn’t even a good lie, which somehow made it worse. I’ll never know if she thought I was naive enough to believe it, or whether she knew that someone in my position didn’t have the authority to question her. But it worked in the end. I got the message. I just didn’t matter.

When I decided I was going to quit my job effective the end date of my rotation, something highly unexpected happened to me. I hadn’t discussed my decision with anyone yet, hadn’t told my manager or any of my co-workers.

But within days of deciding I was done, my self-confidence suddenly shot through the roof.

For so long, I had been viewing myself through the eyes of my organization, through the eyes of management. Sitting at my desk, wondering what I was doing wrong, how I was wrong. My co-workers would give me wonderful compliments, my students gave me high ratings, and yet I still felt hollow. If my work was so good, why did I feel so awful?  I had lost all faith in my own value.

The day I decided I was done, that perspective flipped completely. Suddenly, I was sure I had value. I knew I was good at my job. This organization was going to have a major loss when I left, whether they were able to see it or not.

Because suddenly, I wasn’t looking through their eyes anymore.

Feeling like we have value is such a fundamental human need. Anyone who’s ever been overlooked or dismissed in any aspect of life knows perfectly well that sinking feeling of not being seen, not being appreciated.

Sure, logically we know that we should look internally, not externally, for our validation. And it’s so important to work on that dimension of ourselves.

But in reality? We still take in that feedback from others, especially from those in authority.

Paying attention to people’s value is one of those things that tends to fade fast in the reality of the workplace. We get caught up in the immediate crises of budgets, resources, and staffing. Whether people feel valued is easy to ignore. But when it comes due, the cost is high.

I was not the first to leave my unit feeling undervalued, and I wasn’t the last.

Here’s what I’ve taken from my experience:

  • You have to show that you value others. Again, show, don’t tell. People can tell when you genuinely mean it, and they can tell when you’re using it for your own agenda.
  • Know enough about people to show genuine and specific appreciation. If you’re giving vague platitudes, people know it’s because you don’t really know what they do.
  • Don’t lie. I hate that I even have to say this one, but I do. Because people do lie. And I don’t care if you think of it as spinning the situation or trying to put it in a more palatable frame. It’s still a lie. Don’t do it.
  • And most importantly, value yourself first. We like to believe that someday, they’ll see. But the truth is, that day may never come. I deserved better, and in leaving, I chose better. Do whatever you need to do to choose better for yourself too.

Sunday Reflection – Who Inspires You?

When we think of who we want to be, as leaders and as human beings, I often find it enlightening to think of what I admire in other people. What aspects have I seen in others that I would like to aspire to?

So for today’s reflection, think of who has been an inspiration in your life. This could be a parent, a teacher, a coach, a friend. Someone at work or someone in your personal life.

What do you find inspiring about them? What do they do or say that has made an impact for you? And how can you take what you’ve learned from them and apply to your own life?

I have a former co-worker and current friend who was in my team in the training department. She has experienced many of the same frustrations as me, as well as unique challenges of her own. And yet, through everything she maintains a level of hope and optimism that I deeply admire. She has this sparkling positivity that just shines through, even when people with power over her try to pull her down.

I’ve struggled with the level of cynicism that I’ve developed over the past ten years. Some has come from working in positions where I saw the victimization of vulnerable people, and some has come from feeling like a small cog in a large grinding system.

Speaking with her reminds me that I used to be capable of great optimism, and I’d like to get back to that. I’d like to focus more on the helpers and less on the detractors. I’d like to focus on the people making a difference and not the people terrified of change. Being with her is a reminder that we do have control over how we see the world. And I want to see it in a little bit better of a light.

Gatekeeping Leadership

Here we go...

The organization I worked for before quitting had a Leadership Model. And the theme of this model was “Lead from Any Chair”. The idea was that anyone at any level in the organization was capable of being a leader. It’s a fantastic theme, encouraging those in any type of position to take active roles in improving their organization.

If only it had been true in practice.

We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk”. What I found interesting in my ten years at this same organization, was that management continuously got better at talking the talk – and yet the walk never changed.

Managers became very good at talking about respecting staff and valuing diversity. And yet their actions still led to employees feeling ignored, invalidated, and defeated.

Shortly after I left my job, I had two very similar conversations with two different co-workers. Both of them are women who care deeply about their jobs, and took a leap of faith in making themselves vulnerable and going to management to talk about a concerning problem within their respective units. And both of them, in different cities, in different departments, got the exact same response.

“No one else has said anything,” replied both managers. And that was the end of both conversations.

Some may say this is just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is.

Almost there...

It can feel very empowering the first time an organization admits that it has a diversity problem. When there’s been a history of denial and gaslighting, it can feel as though someone just flipped on the lights in a dark room. Finally! We’re finally being honest!

But the heartbreaking thing is that it soon becomes clear, in so many cases, that admitting there is an issue is just one more way to punt the ball further down the field. So if questions arise, management can point to their Diversity Committee, or their Inclusion Officer, and say, “See? We’re working on it! We promise!”

And many of those in management may genuinely believe that they are doing good in this regard. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Good intentions mean nothing without action.

In my former training department, there are two different leadership programs. One, the one I co-ran, is open to employees of any classification, from office support to management. The other is only open to employees of high level salary ranges. So high, in fact, that some managers do not qualify, because they don’t make enough.

And in this “lead from any chair” organization, I’ll let you guess which program is the one that gets the highest budget and most attention. I’ll let you guess which one opens the most doors.

I’ll also let you guess which program has the higher number of participants of color.

Now there will be people who will attempt justify all this. They’ll talk about succession planning and budgets. They’ll have pat answers for everything. But I don’t care. Because you can’t justify the impact. You can’t justify who gets left out and who gets let in.


I could go on with more examples, but I think everyone has plenty of examples of this in their own workplace. And we know that talking alone doesn’t break down barriers.

So what does?

To those who have power in their organization, here’s what I think:

You need to listen. When someone comes to tell you something, even if it bothers you or makes you feel defensive, you should never dismiss it. Because if you haven’t heard it from anyone else, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It just means that people may not feel safe enough to tell you it’s a problem. This goes double for a man being approached by a female subordinate or a white person being approached by an employee of color. They are reaching through a big power differential to try and talk to you.

You need to accept that inequity is institutional, and you can’t just trust things to balance themselves out. Because they won’t. Acknowledging that you haven’t been taking action and need to do more is not an admission of personal failing. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a sign of leadership.

And you need to act. Stop just saying you care about problems. Show, don’t tell. Whether it’s hiring or putting together a workgroup or finding a panel of speakers for a presentation, you need to be actively looking to find and promote diversity. (Good grief, don’t be one of those people who puts together an all male panel on women’s empowerment). 

For those who don’t have power in their organization, this can be a lot harder. Just finding someone to listen can be an uphill battle. Seeing the mediocre being promoted can feel incredibly defeating. And I wish I had an easy answer.

But I will say that your voice matters. In fact, it more than matters, it’s critical to making things better.

I loved training leaders in my program. I loved that we had receptionists and janitors in conversation with caseworkers and managers. I loved all the voices that came into the room. I loved that when we asked people to share their passions, they made themselves vulnerable and spoke their truths, and often touched their co-workers’ hearts in unexpected ways.

It’s not always easy to see the impact you’re making in the moment. But it’s there.

Sunday Reflection – Introduction

In the Leadership program I used to facilitate, we always started each session the same way. We would provide our participants with a question, or a quote, or an idea. And we would ask them to journal for seven minutes.

Now, seven minutes is not very long. Ask someone to wait for a bus for seven minutes, or tell them that the movie they’re seeing will start in seven minutes, and people are fine.

Tell people to journal for seven minutes – they will struggle.

Not everyone, of course. Some people came into the training as journal writers. But a large number of people, after two or three minutes of writing, would start to fidget. They ‘d be looking around, sighing, and clearly desperate to pick up their cell phone (something we did not allow in our sessions).

And it’s not hard to understand why. When we’re scrambling to keep up with things at work and at home, sitting in solitude and thinking feels like a luxury.

But every session, we still asked them to do the same thing. And we did it for a reason. Because if they wanted to be leaders, they needed to self-reflect. And self-reflection takes practice.

Sometimes we asked them to journal after an activity or a presentation, to allow them time to reflect on what they learned. I’ll never forgot the time one of our participants raised her hand after journaling. “I really didn’t get the purpose of the activity,” she said. “But then when I started writing, suddenly it made sense. You got me!”

In some ways, this blog was inspired by self-reflection, as I started writing to delve into my workplace experiences that led me to quitting. And I want to continue that journey, while also hopefully encouraging others to take the time to do some reflection of their own.

So I’ve picked Sunday as a good day for doing some thinking. Every week I’ll post an idea or a  question or a quote. And I’ll be doing some thinking. And I hope some of you do too.

Amplifying Voices – Introduction

In 2015, author Corinne Duyvis coined the hashtag #ownvoices as a convenient shorthand term to refer to stories written about members of a marginalized community, by authors who belong to that same community.

This has become a valuable tool in the fiction world. Of course authors can write about any topics they wish, but publishing opportunities have not been equal for all communities, and there is a difference between a book about an African-American woman written by an African-American woman, versus one written by a white male. We can imagine what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, but we won’t ever truly know it. Encouraging work by #ownvoices authors gives us all opportunity to engage with individual experience at a much deeper level.

With this blog, I plan to talk a great deal about privilege and bias, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is impossible to be a true leader without acknowledging and combating the existence and influence of inequities.

However, as a white woman, I need to acknowledge my own privilege and never want to make the mistake of speaking for any communities to which I don’t belong.

Amplifying Voices will be a regular feature on this blog, and my attempt to bring the intent of #ownvoices to the leadership conversation. There is so much to learn from leaders of every race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and background, and it’s not a complete conversation without everyone.

Amplifying Voices – Mellody Hobson: Color Blind or Color Brave?

Mellody Hobson is a highly skilled and experienced business leader. Most recently she was appointed as vice chair at Starbucks, but her entire career has been amazing and I encourage you to read more about her accomplishments.

I like Mellody’s business-focused take on why colorblindness is not a valid strategy for dealing with issues of race, and why diversity is a strength for companies. But what I particularly love about her Ted Talk is her mention of becoming comfortable with discomfort. So many of our choices in life are made to avoid discomfort – and yet in doing so, we rob ourselves of some truly life-changing moments.

Scroll to Top