Yesterday a shocking exposé about the toxic culture on the hit TV show Lost came out from Maureen Ryan. In nonprofit leadership, what can we learn from the revelations about a network TV show?
In my opinion, you could swap out the phrases quoted in this article and say they were from employees at just about any nonprofit. Racism, sexism, bullying, neglect, exclusion, and cultures of forced silence are rampant in nonprofits. White men run almost a third of the nonprofits in the US, and surrounding many of them is an air of unchecked power and permission for them to be oblivious to the harm caused in their orgs.
Just like Damon Lindelof of Lost, who when presented with a word cloud of common words used in interviews about the culture of the writer’s room and set of the hit TV show: “cruel, brutal, destructive, racist, sexist, bullying, angry, abusive, and hostile,” he said, “Would it shock you to learn or believe that, despite the fact that I completely and totally validate your word cloud, that I was oblivious, largely oblivious, to the adverse impacts that I was having on others in that writers room during the entire time that the show was happening?” He also asked, “Do you feel like I knew the whole time and just kept doing it?”
Maureen’s response was killer, “In the past decade alone, how many times, and in how many important spheres, have we seen wealthy or powerful people—especially white men—depicted as stumbling bumblers who knew not what they did?” Obliviousness is a sign of privilege and unchecked power. I believe that self-awareness is the most important skill you need as a leader. How can you stop your destructive behaviors if you can’t even recognize them?
Do no harm. This must be our motto as managers and leaders.
The trauma inflicted today ripples out for years to come. As one the Lost writers Melinda Hsu Taylor said, “It’s the sort of place where the voices still ring in your head, even now. You don’t know you’re in an abusive relationship until you’re no longer in an abusive relationship.”
Change starts with training managers on what healthy leadership looks like, encouraging daily reflection to build self-awareness, understanding how power shows up in our work relationships, and learning how to wield that power with thoughtfulness, care, and equity. This outdated model of geniuses who are allowed to be monsters is over. It’s time to build a community of care at work.
This quote from the article could be said about nonprofits today: “Very few people who are put in positions of power get the training or oversight they need to make the workplace a positive—or at least non-miserable—experience for everyone involved.”
As they say on Lost, “Live together, die alone.” It’s time to build a new way to live at work.