I was just 22 years old when I came to work one day and was told by a direct report that I was a distraction to my co-workers ... because of how I smelled.
How would you react to that? What would you say?
Let me explain: At 22, I took command of a platoon of combat engineers, my first real job as a Marine Corps officer. Several months into my tenure, we were participating in a six-week long field operation, rehearsing scenarios that would play out in real time two years later when we deployed to Iraq. Fresh off our desert "camping trip," I had just enjoyed my first shower in a week. When I walked into the tent that served as our makeshift command post, my gunnery sergeant - a man twice my age who had earned a Bronze Star for his actions in combat during Desert Storm - pulled me aside and told me, in a troubled voice, that my smell was distracting. He then clarified: apparently, I smelled too "clean," which was not just distracting, but actually attracting some of the young men that I led.
I was mortified. I ducked quickly behind the tent that served as our command post, pulled my hair out of the bun I was wearing, and rubbed in desert sand to mask the smell of shampoo and freshly washed hair. Angry, I wiped away my tears, ashamed that I had cried. I tied my hair back up - tighter this time - and went back to work.
It was a tipping point for me in my military service, and a moment that defined who I would eventually become. That day in the desert set me on a path of self-suppression, of subtle but steady masking of my true and authentic self, all in the name of career progression. Over my eight years on active duty, I became less empathetic, collaborative and vocal. In short, I was muting some of the very qualities I could bring to the fight, all because I believed that the only way for me to stand out as a leader was to blend in with the men around me.
I've told that story a number of times over the years - at the Women Veterans Leadership Summit for The Mission Continues, where I now work, and this past October at TEDx Georgetown, where I was fortunate enough to be invited to talk about my experiences with authenticity and diversity. Each time, I'm amazed at the number of women who nod their heads in solidarity. I'm even more amazed at the wide array of industries that they represent: finance, law, politics, media and more. This experience of self-suppression and loss of identity affects people of color, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who identify as LGBTQ, too. And each affected person's story offers a unique glimpse at what we're missing when we talk about diversity, and the untapped power it represents for leaders of organizations around the world.
Oftentimes, diversity conversations focus on the numbers: our organizations take pledges, set and publicize goals and assign quotas. But while numbers are important, they don't tell the whole story about what it takes to build the kind of place and space where people can be their authentic selves. Because only when we have the courage and support to be our best and our most-real selves can we truly reap the benefits of the unique talent and perspectives those diverse numbers represent.
Talking about diversity and inclusion is uncomfortable, sometimes awkward, and often emotionally charged. But, in today's political and cultural climate, I believe it is more important now than ever to think critically about the gap that exists between diversity and authenticity.
And make no mistake, bridging that gap is a mutual responsibility that falls both to our organizations and to each of us as individuals.
I'm proud to say that in the years since my experience after that field exercise in the dusty desert, I've seen progress: Today's U.S. military is more diverse by the numbers than ever before. With that comes the challenge and opportunity of working together and embracing difference to achieve a united mission in the context of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious setting. It's valuable experience that veterans like myself carry with us when we head out to work again to make a difference in the civilian world.
For me, as a person offering one diverse perspective, bridging that gap to authenticity also came down to a change in mindset that can help leaders and individuals in organizations of all kinds maximize the potential of their team members:
- Be aware of the subtle signs of self-suppression in yourself and others, like holding back from voicing your opinion, or closing off pieces of the real you in order to fit in.
- Be committed to real and appreciable change. Know the truth - that every organization needs diversity and authenticity to not just survive, but in today's global economy, to thrive.
- Be bold. Know who you are and have the courage to let that person shine through. Make a habit of self-reflection - where are you excelling, and where can you grow? Do your instincts guide you at work? If so, follow them!
- Be an advocate for looking at diversity and inclusion from a wider lens: "Diversity of thought", not just the traditional emphasis on demographics.
Make it known that challenging the status quo is not only accepted, but expected. At a recent conference, I heard a panelist say: "we should never be so excited to be sitting at the table that we forget to be disruptive." That's a mindset that I, as a leader, embrace.
Let's commit, together, to creating a new reality. A reality where diversity is so much more than a quota, and where the true potential of our organizations is reached only when our best and brightest people are allowed to shine and prosper.