The other day, I was asked about my favorite winter activity. My obvious answer was being inside, sipping a warm drink, and binge-watching TV shows. While my response was met with laughter, I was being serious. In addition to Minnesota winters being the worst (and don't act like they're not...), there is just something about losing myself in a high-quality TV series that I find so enjoyable.
Outside of taking a much-needed break from reality every once in a while, I’m convinced that watching these TV shows is actually helping me become a better nonprofit leader. I know that might sound silly or even ridiculous, but hear me out! With the right lens and mindset, there is a lot we can take away from some of TV’s best characters. So, here is a list of some of my favorite characters and what we can learn from them. And don’t worry, this is free of any major spoilers.
1) Sayid Jarrah from LOST
My friends at Wikipedia tell me that “by having achieved both wide acclaim and commercial success throughout its original run, LOST has been consistently ranked by critics as one of the greatest television dramas of all time.” I could not agree more as this show changed my life. If you’re not familiar with the compelling story of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, you now have exciting plans for this winter break. I could go on and on about how incredible this show is, but let’s focus on one of my favorite characters, Sayid Jarrah.
Sayid overcomes any challenge, and he does so with little to no resources. He’s creative, resourceful, and never makes excuses for not having what he needs. If I were trapped on this crazy and mysterious island, Sayid would certainly be my best friend. The radio is broken? Sayid will fix it. Need a way to communicate across the island? Sayid will create a large fire with thick black smoke. Have a big wound but no medical supplies? Sayid knows what to do to heal it. Sayid is always able and willing to help out with anything and will use whatever he has at his disposal to get the job done.
As nonprofit leaders, we need to be like Sayid. We are all dealing with limited time, money, and resources, but still need to deliver. Being resourceful and finding creative ways to solve problems with what you already have is such a valuable and desired skill in any nonprofit organization. Sure, we could all use a new laptop, or that elusive major grant, but you can still do a lot with what you have currently. So don’t be like Shannon Rutherford who sits on the beach complaining about not having spray for sand fleas. Be like Sayid. Except for the whole torturing part. Don’t do that.
2) Michonne from The Walking Dead
Thanks to The Walking Dead, I am now confident that I can not only survive, but thrive in a zombie apocalypse. Regardless if you think that’s a valuable skill or not (it is btw), this show has many other great lessons that we can use today, sans zombies.
Michonne is the perfect example of how hard work, integrity, and relationship building can pay off. When this katana-wielding survivor first stumbled upon Rick Grimes and his group, things weren’t easy. No one knew each other and there were some major trust issues on both sides. After helping protect the group, proving her worth, and developing a close relationship with Rick’s young boy, Carl, Michonne became an integral part of the team and one of Rick’s most trusted friends. This is a good example of how bringing in new and diverse talent with unique perspectives can add tremendous value to an organization.
As young nonprofit leaders, our thoughts, opinions, and ideas might not always hold the same weight as those with more years of experience. We might not always feel heard or even feel valued at our workplace. Unfortunately, this can especially be true for my fellow professionals of color. Sometimes, the best way to prove yourself is by letting your work do all the talking while building positive relationships along the way. Once people get to know you as a person and you give them a chance to see your amazing work, you’ll see credibility and trust can go way up. If things don’t improve and you still struggle to be heard and valued, it might be time to take your talents elsewhere.
3) Earnest Marks from Atlanta
From its all-Black writing staff and main characters to its surreal yet accurate take on Black culture, Donald Glover’s new TV show Atlanta is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Donald Glover stars as Earn who, among many things, is just trying to make a living for himself and his family by managing his cousin and up-and-coming rapper, Paper Boi.
What stands out most about Earn is his unapologetic willingness to be himself and speak his mind in any and all situations. Whether it’s at a local fast food restaurant, a Juneteenth party, or during an argument with his partner and mother of his child, Earn rarely holds back his thoughts. His dry humor and sarcastic tone in the midst of everyday situations manifests into a brilliant, on-screen example of not being afraid to be yourself.
I’ve often struggled to figure out how to be my full, authentic self in various workplaces. It takes a level of trust and vulnerability that I haven’t always felt comfortable giving to others. That’s why it’s important for organizations to create and maintain a safer space* that encourages and cultivates bravery (*it is misguided and insincere to assume we can guarantee that a space will feel absolutely safe for everyone, which is why I use the term “safer space” as opposed to “safe space”). I have the privilege of working at an organization where I do feel like I can bring my full self to work. As your comfort and safety allows, I would encourage you to not shy away from unapologetically being your full, authentic self. I recognize that it might not always possible for a variety reasons, but if we could all strive to create and maintain a workplace culture that is truly open and welcoming, we will all reap the benefits.
4) Walter White from Breaking Bad
I have never binge-watched anything as hard as I did with Breaking Bad. Let’s just say that I’m equally ashamed and impressed with myself and a friend who will remain anonymous. In short, Breaking Bad tells an unforgettable story of Walter White, a father and high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and turns to a life of making and distributing methamphetamine to secure a future for his family.
While that description might not sound like the best role model for nonprofit leaders, Walt really did teach me a lot. For one thing, Walt is always very careful and meticulous with everything he does. He takes great pride in his work and is careful to minimize mistakes. When Walt does make a mistake, he is certain to clean it up swiftly, both literally and figuratively. His work ethic and incredible intellect is something to aspire to. Walt is also an expert at “fake it until you make it” which helps him learn how to demand the respect of those around him.
While our nonprofits are certainly doing more ethical work than Walter White is, we all can benefit from Walt’s attention to detail, pride in his work, and overall self-confidence. Regardless of your exact job description or day-to-day responsibilities, your work plays a key role in achieving your organization’s mission. So even if something doesn’t seem glamorous, find ways to remind yourself of how it’s tied to the overall goal and mission of your nonprofit, and proudly complete that task to the best of your ability. It’s also ok to be like Walt and fake it until you make it. There may be times when you doubt yourself, but know that you were hired for a reason and that you belong here.
5) Arya Stark from Game of Thrones
As I promised to avoid any major spoilers, I’ll just describe Game of Thrones in three words: family, power, and adventure. The fascinating storylines and many unexpected twists make it easy to get through an entire season of this series in a weekend. While it might be tempting to leave any given episode thinking “NEVER TRUST ANYONE,” there are more valuable lessons to learn from the seemingly hundreds of characters in this show. One of my favorite characters is Arya Stark and we all have a lot to learn from her.
Arya Stark of Winterfell shows us what it means to truly be mission driven and completely focused on your goals. Arya knows exactly what she wants and refuses to let anyone or anything stop her from pursuing her ambitions with passion. Life has thrown every single barrier and distraction at her that you could imagine, but it has only grounded her even further in her mission. It is Arya’s focus, drive, and motivation that compel me to cheer for her each episode.
It can often be easy or tempting to get sidetracked by distractions. There are so many that we sometimes get pulled away from our work for an extended period of time without even noticing it. This can be entire organizations falling into the trap of mission creep, or it can be individuals who lose focus on their main responsibilities for more trivial tasks or concerns. Nonprofits exist because there are urgent needs in our communities that must be met. The hard work that we embark upon each and every day at our nonprofits is a privilege, and we need to honor that privilege by staying focused on our mission and goals. If we can all do a better job of avoiding distractions, our productivity will rise and our outcomes will improve.
6) Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder
Last, but certainly not least, is How to Get Away with Murder, one of the most unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat, emotional rollercoaster shows I’ve seen. It is about a team of ambitious law students and their criminal defense professor, Annalise Keating, who find themselves mixed up in a crazy and murderous plot.
Annalise Keating, played by the phenomenal Viola Davis, shows us what it means to be brave, powerful, and always the smartest person in the room. What I admire most about Annalise is her ability and willingness to be such a team player. She works incredibly hard to be there for her team and support them without needing to be appreciated or recognized. More often than not, a lot of what she does is completely behind the scenes and unknown to her students. Annalise always has her team’s back, even if they don’t appreciate or deserve it.
We all want our work to be appreciated and recognized. While that is definitely important, we need to be able to do the hard, behind the scenes work without always expecting a cookie, a pat on the back, or even a raise (though you should totally advocate for yourself). In order to grow both personally and professionally, it is critical for us to work just as hard in the shadows when no one is looking as we do when we’re in the spotlight. It’s easy to be a happy team player when everything is going smoothly. Annalise shows us how to do it when things get tough.
Those are some of my favorite TV characters and the valuable lessons I’ve learned from them. Who would you add to this list?