Are Blacks and other minorities to blame for Ferguson or New York?

On Sunday I was flipping through the television trying to kill time before all of the football games started. Knowing that the Seahawks and Eagles would be aired nationally on Fox, I turned to that channel and left the tv on while I made breakfast. Sometime before the big match, a Fox News show came on, where the topic of discussion was around Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. The host asked panelists, “Are the officers to blame for these events?”

One of the guest speakers, a middle-aged White man, started to answer and I thought “Oh, he must have something very intelligent and wise to say” but then quickly stopped myself because I remembered that stereotypes can be harmful, even when they are flattering (ask any Asian kid).

The man replied (and keep in mind I am paraphrasing here) that the police officers could have shown more restraint and probably needed better training but we should critically examine why Black culture causes such high rates of crime, drugs and violence in the first place.

It was then that I decided an infomercial on the Nutribullet—a revolutionary new kitchen tool that unleashes hidden nutrition inside food—was more intellectual and entertaining.

I’m not sure how we got to this point in our country. As a kid I was taught to accept personal responsibility. It feels like a very American thing to me. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

So how come when we talk about the trauma of minority communities…everything is our fault? On matters of race, gender, sexuality or teen fiction, we’re always quick to redistribute blame. We throw out clichés like “It takes two to tango” or “I think we could all learn from this lesson” or “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Redistributing blame! That’s like the socialist form of finger pointing.

Blaming Blacks and African Americans for misfortune that befalls them…

Is like blaming women for getting raped, assaulted, harassed, and catcalled.
Imagine if the man had said “The rapist could have shown more restraint and probably needs better training, but let’s examine why feminism causes women to get raped.” In fact, you don’t have to imagine it, because people have actually said this.

Is like blaming veterans for being unemployed, homeless, or for struggling with mental health and well-being.
Imagine if the man had said “America could have done more to support our troops, but let’s examine why ‘military culture’ causes veterans to be unemployed and homeless in the first place.” No one says this. Ever! The mere idea is laughable. You’d probably get punched in the face by someone.

Is like blaming Japanese-Americans for their own internment.
Imagine if the man had said “The US Government could have shown better judgment, but let’s examine why Japanese culture caused Japanese-Americans to be interned. They should stop being so passive!”

Is like blaming turtles for being an endangered species.
Imagine if the man had said “Human beings could respect to wildlife more, but let’s examine how turtles failed to use natural selection to their advantage.”

It’s not like turtles are just walking around thinking “Man, I been alive a long time,” a giant tortoise lives a hundred years, “I wish someone would just exploit me. I’m ready to sleep now.”

Is like blaming the Earth for allowing humans to bomb it.
Imagine if the man had said “Humans could have done more to address climate change, but let’s examine why the Earth gave us uranium and plutonium in the first place. I mean, what else we were supposed to do with it? Make batteries?”

Is like blaming the 13 Districts for always sending tributes to the annual Hunger Games.
Imagine if the man had said “The Capitol could have given the 13 Districts the right to vote, but let’s examine why their culture caused them to lose the war and be enslaved.”

No! It’s the Capitol’s fault! Katniss understands it. And so does Peeta. And most of the United States gets it too; especially if you’re an adult between the ages of 18 and 34!

The Capitol created an oppressive system which forces each district to send two tributes each year to fight to the death. It’s not like the children do it willingly—except in District 2, whose tributes actually do volunteer, but you get the point.


Going back to what’s happening in Ferguson and New York, we, society at large, need to stop blaming people for their own tragedy. We have a bad habit and history of focusing blame on the people who suffer from injustice, rather than critically examining, and holding accountable, the perpetrators of injustice.

And I use the term perpetrators loosely; to also include systems and institutions that contribute to prejudice, biases and oppression. We must acknowledge these social problems at the level in which they exist, otherwise our solutions will continue to be haphazard and ineffective.

Imagine telling every woman to wear a body camera when they walk down the street. “Because men will be nicer when they know they’re being recorded.” Seriously? Have you watched a football game lately?


Leave your comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And subscribe to the blog for regular, weekly updates!


How to explain oppression and privilege to the average sports fan

What a (mostly) great weekend for sports in Seattle! The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers; the Huskies soundly crushed the Cougars; and the Sounders beat the Galaxy (only to exit the MLS playoffs, huh?).

Sports made other headlines this weekend too, when a few players from the St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture—a prominent symbol of solidarity around what’s been happening in Ferguson. “Everything about the situation touched me because it could have happened to any of us,” said Jared Cook, St. Louis Tight End. “Any of us are not far from the age of Michael Brown and it happened in our community”

Not everyone was thrilled with this gesture though; particularly the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which condemned the players’ actions. “The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology.”

This specific example reflects the larger dialogue happening across the country. Regardless of your feelings or perspectives, one thing is clear, there’s a lot of mistrust between law enforcement, government and your average citizen. I believe part of the problem is that everyone is talking about different things. The focal point might be Michael Brown and Ferguson, but everyone is speaking from their personal experiences and frustrations, which vary considerably based on who you are and where you’re from. As I try to better understand the events myself, I realized something: Sports perfectly explains oppression and privilege.

Hear me out…


Growing up I was a relatively small athlete. I couldn’t even grow facial hair and pretty much failed at puberty. I blame it on Asian genes and a lack of calcium. I was definitely not the biggest player on the field and quite often the smallest. In fact, you might even consider me a pioneer for later athletes like Russell Wilson (5 ft 11 in) and Lionel Messi (5 ft 6 in). You’re welcome!

I made up for my size deficit by working hard, practicing, and developing my skills so that I could be a competitive player. If I couldn’t out muscle my opponent, I’d out class them. When I saw that other guys were way better at juggling a soccer ball, I learned how to juggle too. When I noticed that I couldn’t win most headers in the air, I learned how to tackle hard and low to the ground. I would play for hours until I got better.

I’ve had my fair share of wins and losses (and ties) throughout my career. By and large, the most frustrating games are the ones where it doesn’t feel like you’re playing the other team…but the referees. A game like this might start out great; things seem to be going your way. Then whoa! Out of nowhere the ref makes a bad call. “It’s just one call,” you think to yourself, “everyone makes mistakes.”

Play on. Then boom! You get tackled from behind by an opponent and the ref doesn’t call that either. Later he misses a penalty for your team. And it happens again, and again, and again. You petition the referee to call a fair game, but he doesn’t see anything wrong. And it just gets worse, doesn’t it? When has it ever gotten better? The ref starts throwing flags and cards at your team, even though you didn’t do anything. And obviously, the other team isn’t going to speak up and tell the ref to call a fair game—they are benefiting from these lopsided calls!

So what do you do? No athlete (or fan) is going to sit back and take it. Hell no! You let the referees know they’re making terrible calls. You curse at ’em. You scream at ‘em. You get in their face. And if that doesn’t work, you retaliate on the field—sometimes even off the field. If the ref isn’t going to call the fouls, you may as well break the rules too. Why not tackle a bit harder? Throw an elbow. Slide with your cleats up. Grab a face mask. Whatever! It’s all fair game at this point, right?

These situations, across any sport, are incredibly frustrating because most people walk into a game thinking they only have one opponent to play; that everything else on the field will be fair. Players are told that if they practice and work hard, they will succeed. Winners are the folks who want it more. Most people never expect they would have to play the referees too.

I had this feeling last week during an indoor soccer game. The other team was making some cheap tackles and the ref missed some pretty obvious calls. “Hey ref! You did you see that tackle? Call it fair.” Mind you, this was a co-ed, recreational indoor soccer game—we weren’t playing for a championship trophy. But both teams wanted to win, and neither wanted the referee to get in the way.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?! What did you do? Just sit back and take it? How many times have you screamed at your television because of a poor call? Remember how loud you got? How angry you were? I bet you even wished someone would punch the ref in the face. How many people have felt “robbed” after a game? (Seahawks vs Steelers, Superbowl XL).


Now imagine if this was your actual life This is how many minorities a lot of the time. We work really hard to better ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We develop our skills and talents through rigorous practice and training, whether by getting a higher education, learning English, or on the job training.

But sometimes, no matter how hard minorities work or how much we prepare…it feels like the game is being called against us; that life is out of our control. It feels like we’re always playing from behind. And it can be a lot of different things that feel unfair, not just one: law enforcement singling out minorities; elected officials targeting immigrants; women being harassed in the work place.

When the game isn’t called fairly, is it so surprising then, at some point, people get fed up and want to protest? People want to scream at the referee and be heard, even retaliate. But in this case, the “referees” aren’t individuals—they are discriminatory laws and practices, rules and regulations that only benefit a small section of the population, and stereotypes and prejudices that devalue the worth and dignity of minorities.

This is what oppression feels like. If we can protest a football game for poor officiating, is it so surprising people want to protest for their civil rights?

And what about “privilege,” this buzzword that you hear minorities use all the time: White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, etc. Privilege is the team who benefits from bad refereeing. They may not actively tell the ref to call an unfair game, but they sure as hell aren’t making a stink when the calls go their way either. All they have to do is remain silent and let the ref keep messing up.

There’s been a lot of talk around racial discrimination, systematic oppression, biases, and injustice lately. I personally believe the majority of people are well-intentioned and sincerely want to live in a peaceful society where everyone has equal rights and opportunity.

The point is, when the rules don’t work in sports we generally change them to make things fair so that teams can compete based on their merit and talent. This is exactly how social justice works. We want to change to rules so that everyone can succeed (or not) based on their merit and talent too.


What’s been your experience? Leave a comment below. I’d love to get everyone’s thoughts on this.

Why do people think Asians are arrogant and White men make great leaders?

Hi everyone. Happy Wednesday!!! And Happy Thanksgiving.

I wanted to explore the topic of arrogance today–or confidence depending on who you ask. I’ve thought about this issue for quite a while, but never really knew how to best articulate it. A recent experience finally compelled me to write about this.

I was having lunch with a friend this week, who happens to be White. At one point in our conversation, my friend provided me feedback about my leadership and communication style. “You can be overly confident sometimes, which can come off as patronizing. You should tone it down a bit.” My initial reaction was “Awww, you notice me,” followed by “NUH-UH, YOU TONE IT DOWN!”

Let’s take a step back, because the purpose of this post isn’t to analyze whether I am confident, arrogant or a combination of both. I admit that I have been all of those things at various points in my life. Instead, I’m curious about the racial dynamics involved in these perceptions.

Here’s a football example: Seahawks vs 49ths in the 2014 Western conference playoff. It was the final play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The winner would go on to play the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. In the final play of the game, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, threw a last ditch pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. If he caught it, the 49ers would have scored a touchdown and likely won. However, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by the Seahawks. Many of you may remember Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews. “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

Reactions were divided. Some people, most notably Seahawks fans, loved Sherman’s interview. Others derided him for being unprofessional and voiced their opinion in extremely racist ways. The criticisms of Sherman were way over the top. Here’s a snippet of some of the comments I found online.

I’ve noticed a terrible pattern of Black and other minorities being portrayed negatively when they are overly confident, while White players get much more favorable treatment.

Let’s look at Tom Brady. Not many people thought Tom Brady was going to be a great quarterback (we all know how that turned out). But Brady was once quoted saying “I’ve been playing this game my whole life…I’ve started a couple games now, and it’s the same game, man. It’s no different. I kid you not, it’s not that hard. I’m going to be a great one. I’m going to be one of the best at this game.”

Is that any different than what Richard Sherman said? I personally don’t think so; yet the reaction is so different. Sure, Tom Brady has also been called arrogant by some, but rarely have people brought up his race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexuality.

This double standard exists for many people of color, including Asians. If you seem too confident, too assertive, or too passionate, you get called arrogant, or something worse. Similar to how athletes are single-mindedly focused on perfection, minorities also share the same drive to be the best we can be. Yet we’re told to tone it down; that we should be more humble.

This is incredibly frustrating for me as an Asian American. It feels like I have to celebrate my personal success quietly, and not be too vocal or expressive for fear of being called arrogant. This continuous self-monitoring is very exhausting. Sometimes, when I do something awesome (far and few, to be sure) I just want to “Richard Sherman” it and let the world know without being put down because of my race. It feels like Asians have to moderate our feelings and excitement, whereas most White men can boast about their successes freely and frequently. In fact, arrogance has been viewed as a positive, even advantageous trait, for some White men.

I’ve heard of similar frustrations among women too. There are many intelligent, strong women leaders who are called arrogant or abrasive when they exhibit the same confidence and leadership qualities as men: confidence, assertiveness, directness, and competitiveness. Hilary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer all come to mind.

The duality between being a minority as opposed to a White man is palpable. How come when White men exhibit these same qualities, they are perceived to be trustworthy, reliable, and great leaders? Am I judged by these same standards? Are people turned off because I don’t fit the stereotype of being a quiet, passive Asian? Does it cause resentment when I am vocal and assertive? Or when I challenge authority? Is Whiteness more positively associated with good leadership and confidence? As an Asian-American, does my overt confidence negatively impact how other people perceive me?

The answers to all of these questions are complex and multifaceted, to say the least. I don’t raise these issues and questions as a way to absolve myself of actually being arrogant. Arrogance is still a real thing; and I am totally guilty of it at different points in my life. Nor is my intention to single out or assign blame to old White men. I’m not pointing the finger at each and every single White men and saying “This is your fault. Look what you did to me!” Rather, it is important to recognize and acknowledge these biases and stereotypes exist and that some people benefit from them and others don’t.

There are so many strong, confident and vocal leaders in the Asian American community. We’re tired of being boxed into other people’s stereotypes. We’re not satisfied with the perceptions that Asians are weak and passive, but excellent at math! We don’t to be crappy leaders, but really great doctors. Our goal should be creating a more diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can put their best foot forward, showcase their amazing talents, and highlight their unique skills–without fear of being put down because of their race.

Can you be confident without being arrogant? Absolutely! But is it fair for minorities to be held to a double standard? Heck no. We need to challenge these implicit biases when we see them.

So when it comes to my work, my passion, my leadership and my career, I’ll put it out there. Just like Tom Brady and Richard Sherman: I’m going to be one of the best at this game. And when appropriate, I’m going to celebrate it–loudly!


How about other folks out there? Ever feel like you can’t be overtly confidence? Ever been told to tone it down? Leave a comment below, I’d like to hear about other experiences. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And go Seahawks!

More millennials moving in with their parents; copies Asian lifestyle

I recently read an essay on CNN called “I still live with my parents and love it.” It was written by Jillian Knowles, a 27-year-old woman who moved back home with her parents shortly after she finished graduate school.

A 2012 Pew Research survey found that 3 in 10 young adults live with their parents. “The share of Americans living in multi-generational family households is the highest it has been since the 1950s, having increased significantly in the past five years.” This demographic has been nicknamed the boomerang generation, referring to the large number of young adults who move out of the family home for a time, only to move right back in.

Jillian’s essay described some of her reasons for moving back home, such as financial, and some of the challenges she experienced, like being mistaken for a babysitter. If her essay didn’t also include a photo, I would have thought Jillian was describing an Asian American experience; the only thing missing was a fight over the Sriracha sauce. For most Asians, the expectation is that children will live with their parents until they marry, purchase their own home, or the zombie apocalypse happens (then it’s everyone for themselves).

What struck me most about the essay was that Jillian framed her situation as out of the ordinary, describing the stigma attached to it. “I live with [my parents], and society should be OK with that.” While this might be true in mainstream America, we Asians have been doing it for centuries. Ironically, for Asians there’s a stigma if you don’t live at home. Even Confucius and Buddha had to move back in with their parents after years of philosophizing abroad.

In my own life, I have moved back home on two separate occasions. The first time was for financial reasons. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in 2006. That lasted about a year until I decided eating rice for every meal was driving me crazy. So I decided to join the Peace Corps and get as far away from home as possible. Ironically, perhaps it was karma, but I was sent to Cambodia, where I ate rice for every meal.

The second time I move back home was in 2010, after I returned from Peace Corps. This time my decision was because of reverse-culture-shock. After two years of living abroad I to relearn simple American things in order to survive, like English, recycling, having a Black president, and showering.

Whatever the reasons millennials have for moving back home with their parents, there are some notable similarities and differences between mainstream and Asian culture.

Saving Money / Working off debt: Jillian had $150,000 in student loans and moved back home to pay off the debt. This is also true for many Asian families. It’s pretty much the cultural norm. Asian parents view this living arrangement as a way to provide shelter for their children, giving them time to prepare for the real world. Asians are technically still a child until they’re 34. For the children, it’s a chance to save up on a down payment to eventually buy their own home—the ultimately Asian life goal. I suppose makes us pretty darn American.

Family dinners: Jillian described the “endless supply of home-cooked meals,” which is also a perk for Asians. My mom would cook dishes like congee and won ton soup—recipes that I never learned—and in exchange I introduced her to exotic foods like pizza, spicy Cheetos, and hummus. It’s really not a bad trade off to be honest.

Taking care of family: This is one area where mainstream and Asian cultures differ. Most millennials move back home because they can’t make it without their parent’s help. According to the Pew report, 78% of 25- to 34-year-olds surveyed say they don’t currently have enough money to lead the kind of life they want, compared with 55% of their same-aged peers who aren’t living with their parents.

On the other hand, in Asian households the opposite is true. Families live together so that children can support their parents. Refugee and immigrant parents especially rely on their children to support them through the retirement years; they don’t have fancy savings, 401Ks or pensions. Additionally, because of language and cultural barriers, parents often need their children to help them navigate a very complex system—whether for health care, transportation, or even the Internet.

But there’s more to it than mere dependency or even independence. To Asians, living with your parents–and supporting them–is how you show love and respect. That and buying them a new car.

Boundaries: Jillian wrote, “I am 27, and my boyfriend is 33. He is not allowed upstairs and has to sleep on the couch if he stays over.” Wait, you mean your parents know you have a boyfriend and they still allowed him to enter their home? Weird. We usually skip out on telling our parents and make up an excuse like we’re studying late at the library.


There are many reasons why millennials would choose to move back home with their parents—all of them perfectly reasonable. But let’s face it, Jillian’s story would not be a big deal if she weren’t White. The truth is, her story has already been experienced by thousands of Asian Americans. Most of the time, we tell these stories to scare our friends. “Dude, I moved back in with my parents and now my mom wants me to rub a coin on her back. Eeek!!!”

While millennials may think they’ve discovered something new and trendy, the bottom line is Asians have been doing this exact same thing for a very long time. For us, moving back in isn’t the problem, it’s figuring out how to move out!

So quit copying our stuff and thinking you just “discovered” it. You already stole coconut water and yoga. Boomerang generation? Ha! Let’s call this what it really is—Asian style.

How about everyone else out there? Do you have experiences moving back in with your parents? I’d love to hear it!

Are you a thinker or feeler? Take this quiz to find your leadership style.

Hi friends. My post last week, “Can Asian leaders think and feel?” explored the pros and cons of task-oriented and people-oriented leaders—two common types of behavioral styles. While each style has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, a successful leader is one who knows how to recognize, and utilize, each style depending on the situation they’re in, or the people they’re working with.

Are you task- or people-oriented? Take this quiz to find out.

Curious about what your leadership style is? I can help! Below is a short quiz that I put together. Run through the various scenarios and add up your score (A or B) at the end to figure out if you’re more task-oriented or people-oriented.

1. You’re out with your friends and need to decide where to go for dinner. Do you…

  • A) Take charge and pick a place? Korean BBQ, your favorite!
  • B) Or check in with everyone to see what they’d like?

2. You just got a C+ on your pharmacy exam and wanted to get feedback from your professor. How do you prefer to receive feedback?

  • A) “Give it to me straight! Don’t hold the punches.”
  • B) Use the sandwich approach–wrap the negative feedback between two positives. “You’re super hard working, but have zero aptitude for pharmacy. And your hair smells delicious, like beef broth. Yum!”

3. You’re learning how to stir-fry and need to buy a new wok for your kitchen. Do you…

  • A) Research all of the specs and ratings online before making your decision?
  • B) Ask your friends how they feel about their woks?

4. Someone just said something racist: all Asians are terrible drivers. You respond by…

  • A) Reasoning with them. Share some statistics about Asians and driving, and how it compares to other groups.
  • B) Appealing to their emotions. Explain how these stereotypes negatively impact Asians and that it actually hurts your feelings too.

5. Its family day and you’ve got a tight schedule: dim sum in Chinatown, followed by a visit to the Asian Art Museum and ending with karaoke. How do you manage the schedule?

  • A) Can’t be late! Plan out every stop and how long it takes to get everywhere, factoring in seasonal traffic and weather patterns.
  • B) Time isn’t a big deal. Just gotta make sure everyone maintains their energy level and no one has a melt down before the day is done.

6. You and your colleagues just got assigned a new project for work and the team needs to designate a lead. Are you more comfortable…

  • A) Stepping up to make sure the project gets done efficiently and on time?
  • B) Playing a support role and using your skills behind the scenes to ensure team unity and success?

7. Just graduated and you’re looking for a new job. Would you prefer an environment where you get to…

  • A) Work alone and independently?
  • B) Work collaboratively in groups?

8. Your friends would describe you as…

  • A) “Hard to read.” They’re never quite sure what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling.
  • B) “Easy to read.” Oh yeah, you’re like a book. They know exactly what’s on your mind.

9. You’re in a relationship and your partner just asked to meet your parents. How do you respond?

  • A) “Hmm, let me think about it.”
  • B) “Of course!” There’s no reason your parents shouldn’t meet someone you care about.

Your results

If you answered mostly A, then you have task-oriented leanings. You’re methodical and organized, preferring to trust logic and reason. You’re probably the rare Asian that always shows up to meetings and parties on time. Congrats!!!

On the other hand, if most of your responses were B, then you tend to be more people-oriented, like a lucky rabbit. You’re in tune with the feelings and needs of those around you, and prefer to work through challenges collaboratively. You’re also probably comfortable telling your parents you love them.

You can read my post from last week for more details on these two styles.

Keys to success

I believe most Asian Americans gravitate toward a task-oriented style because of cultural, societal or family reasons. However, it is equally important that we have strong people skills needed to make relationships work. A successful leader is able to balance both types of styles; the yin and yang of leadership.

Now that you’ve identified your own leadership style, here are some keys to success.

For task-oriented leaders…

  • Listen, don’t talk: If someone ever comes to you with a problem or challenge, you must resist the urge to solve their problems immediately. Some people just want to vent their frustrations and be heard.
  • Use active listening: Task-oriented leaders tend to be good at multitasking. But don’t multitask people! You must give people your undivided attention. Eye contact goes a long way.
  • Prioritize relationship-building: I previously wrote about the importance of effective relationship-building, this is a good skill for task-oriented leaders to practice. Show people you care about them by valuing their presence, following up with them, and staying in touch.
  • Remember that you have feelings too! We’re not robots. It’s ok to show people how you really feel. Just because your parents never said “I love you” doesn’t mean you have to be the same way. Feelings are important.

For  people-oriented leaders…

  • Organize, organize, organize: Our fast-paced, workaholic culture can feel really overwhelming at times. Relax. Take a deep breath. Start by organizing your to-do list, schedules and most importantly, your goals.
  • Ask for help: If you’ve got too much on your plate, ask a task-oriented person to help you. They will be more than happy to help you problem solve!
  • Get rid of toxic relationships: Connecting with people is great, but some relationships are toxic and drain you of energy. It’s ok to let these go. Focus on your own mental and emotional well-being.
  • Find your voice! It’s good to be humble and supportive, but recognize that you also have skills, experience and talent too. If you have a great idea, speak up and share it! Take credit where credit is due.

What do you all think? Have more keys to success to share? What’s worked (or hasn’t worked) for you and your life? I’d also love to hear how these leadership styles have intersected with people’s Asian American identity. Leave a comment below, Facebook, or email me!

Can Asian leaders think and feel?

I am a problem solver by nature. It’s how my brain is wired. This trait was exemplified today when a colleague shared with me some of the challenges and frustrations she was having with work. Being the type of person that I am, my first inclination was to dissect the problem into small pieces, analyze it, and think of specific solutions. I’ll even draw illustrations with flow charts and graphs if it helps—the Ikea approach. If one solution doesn’t work, I’ll think of another, and then another, and so on and so forth, until we figured it out.

As we got further into the conversation, it became apparent that my colleague wasn’t looking for action steps or solutions; she needed time to process how she was feeling. The type of support she needed most, at that moment, was someone to listen to and acknowledge her frustrations. Basically, she needed empathy. It was a big moment for us and a reminder to me that “problem-solving” isn’t always the best solution.

Being a good leader is tricky business. You have to quickly and accurately respond to changing environments, situations, and people. The challenge can also be compounded by the stereotypes other’s place on you. For example, many people view Asians as too passive to be effective leaders. Sometimes, even Asians internalize these perceptions too. But ask any Asian child and we’ll tell you the same thing: “Don’t mess with a tiger mom.” Are Asians passive? Far from it. Do our cultural values shape the type of leaders we are? Absolutely.

Each style has their pros and cons; there’s no “one size fits” all approach. The hallmark of an effective leader is to be able to identify these various styles and adapt your behavior appropriately. Although there are many ways to define and characterize leadership, the two most common styles that I have come across are task-oriented and people-oriented.

Task-Oriented Leaders

If my example above wasn’t obvious enough, I fall in the “task-oriented” camp. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first reaction would be to help you solve your problem. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. I’m an analyzer. My world consists of order and logic.

Let’s say your parents didn’t know how to use the dishwasher (for Asians, that’s nearly all of us), I would feel compelled, even obligated, to tell your parents how magical dishwashers are and explain in detail how to properly use one. “Start by placing the dirty dishes on the rack. Add some slime in this cup here, close the door and say ‘abracadabra.’ Wait patiently for 30 minutes. Open the door and presto! Clean dishes.” Then I’d fist bump your mom. Mind blown.

Pros: Task-oriented people tend to rate high on technical skills. We take great pride in getting things done proficiently and efficiently. We spend many hours improving our skills and processes. Got a deadline? Piece of cake. A task-oriented person will have it done on time. We try to do more, and do it better and faster. Need help with data? We got you. Want relationship advice? You’re screwed.

Cons: Task-oriented leaders are so focused on getting the job done that they may forget how people feel, which is important because everyone has feelings (even Asian parents). They sometimes miss out on the big picture, which threatens creativity and team dynamics. It can result in poor interpersonal relationships or motivation problems. Many of the traditional career choices for Asian Americans tend to fall on this side of the spectrum: doctors, lawyers, engineers.

People-Oriented People

On the other hand, people-oriented leaders excel with interpersonal relationships. My co-worker is a good example this. She prioritizes relationships and is focused on making sure everyone on the team feels supported and heard.

If you ever approach a people-oriented person with a problem, they will likely ask you how you feel and then swaddle you until you fell asleep. They view the world as if it were a gigantic human chain, where everyone is connected and you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Pros: People-oriented leaders have the natural gift of empathy. This leadership style focuses on developing trust and rapport among coworkers, and encourages teamwork and collaboration. Their strong affinity for people makes them great office energizers. They naturally motivate others with their positive energy, effective use of trust falls, and occasional group pillow fights. People-oriented leaders believe that a positive, healthy work environment brings out the best in people, which ultimately leads to better results.

Cons: But people-oriented leaders may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and responsibilities on their plate. They have trouble navigating chaos and may need more direction. As a result, sometimes important details are overlooked or forgotten, which may put a project in jeopardy or lead to ineffective decisions. Social workers, counselors and artists—basically, every profession Asian parents tell their children to avoid—generally fall on this side of the spectrum.

Achieving Harmony

In general, there’s a tendency to focus more on completing tasks and getting stuff done. You see this a lot in our American culture; everyone regularly works 50-60 hours a week without taking a vacation (not healthy at all). This trend also extends to Asian-Americans, which is somewhat ironic considering how everyone pencils us as a “collectivist” culture.

Being task-oriented could lead to short-term success, but in the long-time you’ll likely fail. People will burn out, lose motivation, and eventually move on.

It’s important to understand that leadership and behavioral styles vary from person to person and situation to situation. One style isn’t inherently better than the other. Nor does it mean that you need to spend 50% of your time on each.

Task and People-Oriented Yin Yang

The key to effective leadership is finding a healthy balance between the technical skills needed to get the job done, and the people skills required to make relationships last. When we achieve balance, people will put in more time and energy into completing tasks. And we’ll all have a little fun in the process.

Next week, I’ll discuss how Asians can identify if they are task- or people-oriented, and how you can effectively work with these styles.

Besties or frenemies? The real story behind government, foundation and non-profit partnerships.

This past week I was on a panel discussion about understanding and connecting with communities. As Seattle becomes more diverse–economically, culturally, linguistically–there has been a rising interest in how to better engage, and ultimately serve, these emerging communities.

On the panel were representatives from City government, a gentleman from a local Foundation, and me–speaking from the non-profit perspective. Together, we represented “the big three.”

The moderator asked questions like, “How do you use data to understand the community and shape programs, investments and strategies” and “What tools do you use to understand your community?” We each shared how our respective institutions uniquely approached community development. Sometimes our work and vision clearly align (besties!), and other times we butt heads  (frenemy).

Rather than going into too much technical detail, I decided to write a fairy tale to explain the magical world of government, foundations and non-profits.


The Immigrant versus the Three Magi

A long, long time ago, far away in sleepy land cursed with eternal rain and little sun, there lived three magi: Government, Foundation and Non-Profit. Together, they watched over the entire kingdom with good intention and grace; each blessed with a different gift.

Government was born with the gift of influence, and lived in great hall filled with cubicles so massive they are rumored to steal one’s soul. Any man, woman, or child unfortunate enough to mistakenly wander into the hall would be lost and forgotten beneath reams of paperwork for all of eternity.

Foundation was blessed with wealth and lived in an ivory castle high above the clouds. There, she enjoyed a life filled with gold, jewelry and retirement benefits. Though Foundation had many suitors with whom to share her wealth, she was always hampered by a fear of long-term commitment.

Finally, Non-Profit–the smallest but most beautiful of the three–had neither influence nor wealth, but was given the gift of heart (and lavishing skin with perfectly symmetrical facial features). Non-Profit lived in a humble abode, which he had to split with other two roommates because he couldn’t afford rent.

Once a year the three magi emerged from within their walls to meet with the kingdom’s inhabitants, and each other. The gathering was known as the Great Equity Summit, an annual celebration where the magi granted audience to the people, listened to their needs, and offered solutions to their problems.

“Send in the first citizen,” announced Government.

“Your majesties, I am a poor shopkeeper who recently came to this Kingdom from across the eastern ocean, in a place called the Orient. I was able to find moderate success selling gluten-free water at the local market, but recently the cost of living has risen faster than my income. Now I can’t support my family and I am worried we will lose our home. Other families are growing anxious and more desperate too. Please help us.”

“Your words have moved me stranger,” replied Government, “and if what you say is true, then we must begin by carefully studying this problem. I shall appoint an independent Royal Assessor to collect data on other citizens in your neighborhood. We will conduct surveys, organize focus groups, and host community gatherings to get the input we need for a written report. Only then will I be adequately informed to make a decision.”

“We must act now!” interrupted Non-Profit. “What you need are new skills and opportunities for leadership. I shall create a job training program to teach you English and math, and find you an internship with the local masons. With hard work, you will earn a higher income, save your home, and strengthen your family.” Non-Profit spoke with passion and determination. “But first, is there anyone in this great Kingdom willing and able to volunteer as a tutor, case manager, and/or web designer for the shopkeeper?”

“No, no, no.” said Foundation. “That won’t achieve lasting impact. We need to be strategic and create a road map that will guide our work. I offer a grand competition for people, or corporations, to submit proposals that will address this urgent problem. We will gather new, innovative ideas and rank them according to factors like board composition, spelling, sustainability, and overhead. The champion will be announced in six weeks, and afterward we shall feast on lobster tails sprinkled with gold dust.”

“Foundation, you need to check your privilege ,” cried Non-Profit. “Your ‘grand competition’ always declares the same White Knight as champion.” Foundation felt hurt that her love and kindness was rejected by Non-Profit, who she secretly admired. In anger, she scratched his eyes and put him in a headlock.

“Let me go at once!!!” said Non-Profit. “Biases! Biases I say! Let me go.”

“Say ‘collective impact,’ then I’ll let you go,” yelled Foundation. “Say it!”

Government stepped in to break up the fight. “Friends, be civil, please. Let’s put this to a vote!”

“Everyone be quiet!” yelled the shopkeeper. “Stop fighting with each other; it’s not making anything better. None of you ever listen to the community. You’re always just set in your own ways. Government, you’re paralyzed by process and analysis. Foundation, you spend more time in the clouds than with people like me. Non-Profit, I appreciate all of your energy and enthusiasm, but your volunteers are unreliable.”

The three magi were stunned–no one had ever dared to raise their voice against them before. They all felt embarrassed and thought about the shopkeeper’s words. “Perhaps…it would be best if we worked together,” admitted Government, who agreed to set new affordable housing policies. Foundation decided to use her wealth to support grassroots champions of all colors and creeds. And Non-Profit committed to hiring permanent staff to provide services.

Everyone celebrated this huge milestone, for it represented what could be accomplished when Government, Foundation and Non-Profit used their gifts and talents to support one another.

“Lobster tails for everyone!” Foundation said joyously.

“Finally, a summit the resulted in action!” echoed Non-Profit.

“Wait a minute stranger…” interrupted Government. “You mentioned that you came from the Orient. My data says your people are college educated and high-income homeowners. What gives?”

The shopkeeper, having had his wished fulfilled, ran out the door and yelled “I’m Southeast Orient. Learn how to disaggregate your data, jerk face!”

***The End***

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