Adrift in the snow on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)
Everything is an echo of what has come before
“Future Leaders Scheme is building a diverse, robust pipeline to senior roles. You’re part of the high potential, talented civil servants who can get there.”
The Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) is one of the UK UK Civil Service’s Accelerated Development Schemes, aimed at high-potential grade 6 and 7 civil servants. You can read my previous reflections on the scheme here:
Hello dear reader,
This was not the plan.
The plan was to write a blog post on the future of the Future Leaders Scheme, about how we could change the scheme to be more joyful. I would draw from my experiences and interweave those stories with thoughts about the broadest, holistic view of the context of learning. But it turns out, I do not have the wherewithal for that piece. At least not right now — my mind feels resistant to anything requiring real clarity or concision.
So I’ve ended up writing from an emotional place instead.
The narration of this story represents my journey through the scheme’s landscape and the scars it has left upon me. These scars are reminders of what I’ve seen, done, and learned. They are forever a part of my body’s memory. It is not something I should ever attempt to forget. And it is here that I explore the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘system,’ and the tensions between the two. After all, it is the system in which the self resides.
So, here goes.
The fourth module consisted of:
- day 1 and day 2 — bringing together what we have learnt together during the Future Leaders Scheme and considering its application through the lens of our personal effectiveness and becoming the leader that we aspire to be.
I have not learned to savour the heartbreaks that have befallen me here. The tumult rolls around in my soul, that’s been painstakingly sutured together time and time again. I have side-lined parts of myself, walled off the fractured sections of my identity, to make this experience easier.
It does feel like something is shifting within me. I feel an urge to understand and crystallise these feelings, hungry to give them shape, because to articulate it is to begin to understand it. Maybe then I’ll finally arrive at what I’m looking for.
Here and now, in a draughty December, I come up for air. I come up to think. I come up to dream. I come up to reactivate that certain spark of myself which only seems to ignite outside the scheme’s boundaries. I come to plant seeds at a time when I feel like the scheme is burying me most.
I came here to feel connected. I leave here feeling more broken and alone.
The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone.
I’ve spent much time recently trying to catch my breath. All of this is hard. It’s hard to keep going out into the scheme, a place adept at chasing us away from our feelings. I am angry, hopeless, and bursting — all at the same time — in this place of broken spirits, hollow rituals, and lost futures. It’s exhausting, frankly. The scheme says nothing of joy, legacy, or compassion.
It’s difficult to understand the twists and turns of my sadness right now. But the thing I keep close is that it didn’t have to be this way. It just didn’t, and we should be collectively and righteously furious about that.
Navigating the valley of despair
I have spent a fair portion of the scheme in a constant, low-to-high grade state of stress. There is little understanding or acknowledgment of the physical and psychological effects of the scheme, that it has a lasting impact in intentional and unintentional ways. Trauma seems to seep through every core of my being. Even if the scars aren’t visible, they still hurt, don’t they?
I feel an alarming and unexpected need for solitude, to pull back from just about everything and re-evaluate. I feel discombobulated and bewildered, working through layers of bittersweetness, anxiousness, and anger. I feel dehumanised by my time here. This brokenness has created new grief for me, but it’s also exacerbated old ones. There is no space for fragility, no accounting for rest and recuperation.
I compartmentalised the stress and ongoing trauma, flattening it into something survivable. I minimised the stress and anxiety and trauma despite knowing I feel these things deeply. I stayed. I swam in that survival stress for months on end. I slept in it. I swallowed it in gulps. I lived through it. And I told myself stories of resilience — because what other choice did I have.
I recite all of this to remind myself that I lived through it. I will spend years dwelling on what I went through here. And years trying to get over it. Eventually, I will work through it, slowly getting reacquainted with myself. I will make my own feelings, so often submerged, into something palpable. I will start thinking about these experiences, and what sort of work is necessary for repair, before it starts erupting all over my future work relationships and life without warning.
But it’s okay that I’m not there, not quite yet.
We will make you ours
It is not inclusion if you invite people into a space you are unwilling to change. — Dr Muna Abdi
I can no longer bring myself to participate fully, to try hard to be a ‘success’. I feel shamed into making at least half an effort to fight my own rebelliousness. But my rebelliousness is too strong. I refuse to be categorised and to not notice categorisation happening. And I feel relieved that I am not completely broken yet, that I still have some persistence and intrinsic motivation in me. But what are the consequences of resisting, of my refusal to participate?
There are penalties for complexity, ambiguity, variation, intuition, and mystery — for anything the scheme may not recognise. This is a place with all the messiness of humanity scooped out, where predictable moves are the ones we’re taught or conditioned to believe are the correct ones. We pay too much attention to the most confident voices here — and too little attention to the most thoughtful, complex thinkers.
Quite a few people have messaged me to tell me how brave I am for openly writing about my experiences, that there is beauty and courage in my writing. I want to say that I am not brave, nor bold for that matter. I confess that I seek others out because I am lonely and unsure in my rebellion. I am advocating for who’s being left behind, whose voices aren’t there, and for whom this space may not be safe for. I am able to speak up and work for change. Because I know that whilst we are in the same space, we simply don’t have the same access.
I know that speaking openly is going to cost me something. Perhaps my work or social standing, or maybe even my sense of safety. What is not often mentioned is that you must be willing to make a sacrifice to change things. And sometimes that’s hard — for real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand.
The struggle to be human
Taking part in this leadership scheme is an offer that is difficult to turn down. The invitation signals career opportunities for the invited. Many join for the networking and the temporary or permanent ‘ticket’ to Senior Civil Service. It is a badge that requires some effort to acquire and usually costs those subject to it more than they are aware of or willing to pay.
The scheme is deliberately, if only semi-consciously, operating in a highly intensive fashion at the participatory level — the deepest (and least acknowledged) level of UK Civil Service knowledge (thank you Carla Groom!). This is what we call the ‘self.’ It is designed to change people, to take away your ‘self’ and replace it with something new.
You see, the scheme makes its demands — it wants you to convert, heart and soul. You are shown all the ways in which the system is inequitable and given the valuable knowledge of how to navigate an unlevel playing field. You will be implicitly and explicitly promoted. In return, there is a reward for compliance: you need to demonstrate how committed you are, to conform to the norms and maintain harmony. And being good would mean a prestigious, secure place in the Senior Civil Service.
So how do I become a senior leader with my ‘self’ still intact?
Furious activity is no substitute for understanding
We need leaders who seek to make themselves less important in service of a collective. — Jimmy Paul
We really need to talk about the UK Civil Service’s superiority complex. The notion that, somehow, we are better, cleverer, more important than the parts of public service. We’re not.
We really have no idea what we’re missing. Our arrogance and disdain for the public sector shows real ignorance. The life changing, reimagining, outcomes-shifting work happens at locality level. If only we realised how much more sophisticated their thinking is than our own. That they have bucket loads of wisdom, imagination, and determination — and those things are important currencies, as vital as the credibility and trust that is so valued in the UK Civil Service. We have so much to learn from the ways and means they have navigated ambiguity and complexity through extended, overlapping and (semi)permanent crises.
But how would we know this? We’ve become insular in how we operate. The scheme really emphasises the importance of showing ‘grip,’ seeking quick simple answers to complex problems. This promotes sharp elbows and individualism within narrow, departmental silos over the collaboration sorely needed to tackle cross-cutting problems. I found the lack of conversation around the mismatch of structure, incentives, and culture to be jarring.
Brilliant people with real expertise in their domain are fewer and more diffuse than we need right now. So, we need to ask ourselves: what are the kinds of civil servants we want? If we want diverse, adaptive, and effective senior leaders, then we won’t get that here. We must not just value evidence, expertise, and longer-term thinking, but also character and values, too. We need boldness, curiosity, openness, humility, and the bravery to make uncomfortable decisions, fast. We need a better relationship with place.
Our future is not fixed. But what are we prepared to do to guide it?
We are the ones we have been waiting for
To speak is still a bold act. These blog posts should never have been needed. And yet, here we are. Maybe that’s just how things are now. The status quo is so intense — I wonder what it will take for us to actually act.
Nothing about the Future Leader Scheme became her like the leaving of it. I am still pretty raw from this soul-demonishing experience. There were too few waypoints to rest and recuperate. The world as I know it is not coming back.
We get the senior leaders we deserve. In the words of Stefan Czerniawski, the chances of ending up with good leadership — which is supposed to be the point of all this — would be enhanced if there were recognition of what these schemes are actually doing. This makes clarity of intent simultaneously essential and seemingly somewhat impossible.
Maybe the first step is seeing that there is a system at all.
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here: