Odd Ducks, Sesame Street Game & Fitting In

In my previous article, “Organizational Culture, Leadership, and the Power of Being Yourself,” I talk a little bit about fitting in, and having the confidence to be yourself. I put particular emphasis on the fact that I wanted what any other junior officer wanted: to be good at my job and earn the respect of my troops, my superiors, and my peers. I think that fitting in, and being acknowledged as competent, is a common sentiment felt by the majority of the workforce and it is indeed the exception that has no qualms about being the odd duck. But what does it mean when to fit in? What makes someone the odd duck? Or what about the one who is one of those things that is not like the other? Crazy though it may seem, I don’t ever want to be the odd duck, but I’m okay being one of those things that is not like the other.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an odd duck hater. There should be room for them in an organization as well. In fact, odd ducks increase the likeliness of thinking outside the box, they diversify an organization. Odd ducks get that description for reasons related to their behaviour. It isn’t a physical characteristic, they just march to a different beat. 

One of these things is not like the other is all about the physical appearances. It harkens back to the Sesame Street classic that was all about picking out the one thing that was a little bit different because of size, shape, colour, etc. It is tangible.

I was one of those things in my career. I was the girl. The female. The chick. The one that wasn’t a dude. I couldn’t do much to change that, so I had no choice but to accept it. But it was not always that straight forward and simple. It still isn’t. A conversation I had Friday night has me circling back to this topic again.

I meet a rock star from our small military world this past Friday, one I had heard plenty about, but our paths surprisingly had never crossed. Yes, she is also one of those things that is not like the other. But more importantly, she’s the triple threat in the world of combat engineers: airborne, combat diver, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) qualified. She is combat tested and proven. A leader. A role model. For anyone, of any gender. We hit it off, and got to talking about our experiences and backgrounds. The thing I have noticed that her, two of my close female infantry friends, and I have in common is that we all hail from small east coast towns/villages whereby gender was irrelevant. Nobody told us we couldn’t do things that the boys could. Instead, we were expected to do things that the boys did – carry in the wood, help with the lobster traps, bailing hay, etc. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but I suspect it had a large part to do with our successes in a male dominated environment.

In a lot of ways, we “fit in” right from the start in the military. From a behaviour standpoint, we were not odd ducks. From a physical appearance side of the house however, we were one of those things that was not like the other. Each of our abilities to embrace that was probably a little different. In Friday evening’s discussion we got to talking about how we dressed (or didn’t dress) to downplay our femininity. I remembered my first few months in the regiment. It was nerve racking to get dressed if it called for civilian attire. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. As I mentioned in my article I referenced, following the conversation I had with my TSM whereby he gave me my confidence back, I stopped caring. I came fully to the realization that I am a woman, and I was done with trying to downplay that fact. I still was very cognizant that I had to be dressed professionally, in a manner that reflected my position as an officer, but if someone happened to notice I was a woman, or checked out my ass in my jeans, that was a reflection on them, not on me. It need not have any bearing on my ability to do my job. I came to that realization early on in my career. Others do not. Some never do. Some have doubts along the way. I did.

In Afghanistan, when I learned that on the camp I was being referred to as catwoman in the gym because I was wearing all black, lycra pants and a fitted dri-fit shirt, I was mortified. I stopped wearing that to the gym…for a stint. Slowly, once again, I came to the “fuck it” moment. Fuck them. This is more comfortable and easier to wear, and I don’t give a shit if they get their jollies off of ogling me looking sweaty and gross, red in the face, trying to keep myself in shape. I actually think it bothered my crew more than me in the end. It was like they were talking about their sister or something.

The “fuck it” moment can be a magical moment. It equates to a level of self-confidence that is empowering. You take positive control over yourself, your reactions to others, and their perception of you. It is remarkably freeing.

So if I can come to that “fuck it” conclusion so easily over physical appearance, and am okay with being one of those things that is not like the other, what’s my hang up about being an odd duck? Well, my physical appearance is just that. I can’t really change it in the grand scheme of things. But if I’m an odd duck, that speaks to the core of who I am. It is my personal culture so to speak – the vibe I give off, maybe it’s my values? It is something inherent in who I am as a person that is different enough from the rest that it warrants the moniker odd duck.

Behaviour, unlike physical appearance, is far more malleable. Consequently, the pressure to change would be greater. I would not want to fundamentally alter who I am to fit into a work place culture, and I think it would be exhausting to always feel a little bit different than everyone else. I would rather find myself a work place culture I’m more in step with. But that’s just me. I don’t have the level of self-actualization required to pull off odd duck status. To those that do, I tip my hat to you, because we do need you.

I stand by what I put in that article:

There needs to be congruence or harmony between the individual and the organizational culture. If they are at odds, there will be dissatisfaction with one of three likely outcomes:

  • the employee leaves;
  • the employee stays but is unhappy and the dissatisfaction permeates through other facets of life, not just work; or
  • depending on the organization and the individual’s status within it, they can exercise leadership and gradually shift the culture over time.

Every organization has a culture, some more pronounced and rigid than others, but there is room for everyone within that culture. Be yourself. While great leaders will always find a way to adapt to the environment or situation, this does not mean they alter who they are fundamentally. We need leaders who have the strength and courage to remain true to themselves. Through being yourself, and promoting that message to your subordinates, we contribute to healthy workplace culture that is capable of growing and is supported by a more diverse foundation.

Easy words to say perhaps, when you’re not an odd duck.

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