Delight and dissonance on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)

It is hard to learn to love this unfolding story of mine.

Image of Coventry University library building in the foreground with campus buildings and green trees in the background; there are blue skies and fluffy clouds.

“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 Civil Service’s Accelerated Development Schemes, aimed at high-potential grade 6 and 7 civil servants. You can read my early reflections on the scheme here:

Hello dear reader, I’m so happy you’ve arrived.

This piece is more raw, less crafted, from the heart. It turned out to be tricky to write since it required a delicate balancing act of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I feel like I’m wandering around with a blindfold on. It was as if I was waiting for a single ray of light (like a warm hello) to dispel the despondency. The best thing I can do right now is, when the moments of joy come (mostly coffee and cake-related), to allow myself to feel them deeply.

A path to surviving the scheme comes in and out of focus in front of my eyes. And I’m conscious that if I have been defined by my role in this struggle, and that struggle ends, then who am I? Yes, I think I will write about that, too.

So, here goes.

Gif of Doctor Who (played by Jodie Whittaker) saying, “I’m just a traveler.”

I have been working overtime to process the experience of the first module for the Future Leaders Scheme, the tension building up and up. The first module consisted of:

  • day 1 — we thought about how leadership is defined and considered what it means to be a leader in the 21st century; and,
  • day 2 — we participated in action learning sets and talked through our issue for resolution in small groups.

I felt fragile during the two days. Concerns ran rampant in my mind: How hard will it be for me to be there? Can I sustain my energy long enough to make it through the end of the day and keep up with the group? What can I do that will induce reflection? Will we be able to engage in deep dialogue and learn as a collective? The overwhelm was real. I kept saying to myself, “I’m fine. I’m good(-ish).” I was in the routine and the flow of the sessions. But there were large chunks of time where I was not exactly fine. Things weren’t going well, they weren’t even really going good.

I could find very little of me here. As an intrepid explorer, I found it to be akin to standing at the top of a hill with a storm blowing in my face. So, I found myself retreating inward, isolating as a form of protection, but also a deepening of a retreat into my own cocoon of comfort. The more I didn’t have to relate to the scheme, the more peaceful I began to feel. When the first module finished, I felt a sense of relief that I no longer had to be there exhausting myself with thin ties, loose connections, and paradoxes. Truth is, I have found myself in a bit of a dark spot when I spend time ruminating on this. I am sensitive to the scheme and the tower of illusion that surrounds it. I find myself flooding internally with emotion that seems to have nowhere to go. I feel I have less power to change the scheme surrounding me than the scheme has to shape me.

I have felt the shifting tides between my dissonance and need for connection, both a struggler and a survivor of the scheme. Maybe it’s assumed that I should endure, that I’m obligated to go the distance with it. I remind myself that I can leave (since I have that privilege), accept it, adapt to survive it, stew on it, or get creative and work to shift it. I feel grief for what I have lost, and for what I never had but know in my bones must exist. Will the Future Leaders Scheme continue to be the place that fleetingly delights and lingeringly devastates me in (un)equal measure?

Gif of Moiraine Damodred (played by Rosamund Pike) from the TV series ‘The Wheel of Time’. She is powerfully drawing magic from her surroundings as a member of a magical organisation.

It’s hard for me to engage with the scheme in a way that is constructive. And, as expressed through my blog posts, another larger part of me sees immense potential in the scheme — in relationships, the interconnectedness of all things, and meaning-making. It could be an energetic holding space, both safe and brave, where conversations of possibility, dissent, and commitment allow people to see themselves more clearly and grow as a result of how they are being held.

The despondency I felt at the first module reminded me to reflect and that I value demystifying these kinds of activities. I’m going to continue to write about what happens on the Future Leaders Scheme, if only to help me work through my existential angst.

Taking the time to reflect and take stock recently has enabled me to see some patterns and themes which have shown up in many different ways for me during the first module. Some themes I am following, and others emerge to me without really noticing, until I stop and pay attention to the pattern. I can only speak from my experience. The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone. Before we start, I will say a few things.

I’ve been contemplating the complex contradictions of the scheme. There is so much of being part of it that feels difficult to let these contradictions co-exist. I’m being told to be myself…whilst being given advice about how to be. How do I be myself in a place trying to change me into someone else?

The narrative often collapsed down to two things: What can I tell you to do? And where can I tell you to go? There was much talk about building a career through Cabinet Office/ No 10/ HM Treasury and finding ‘champions’ to endorse you for roles. I think it’s consequential that most senior leaders in the UK Civil Service spend time in the ‘centre’ of government on the way up — and that they would advise this to others. But there is no ‘centre.’ It is only the centre in the eyes of the person viewing it. Perhaps, in these ‘between times,’ people are making sense of change by recreating familiar aspects of the old world within the new one. But I have a desire to carve my own way rather than be defined by the path set out for me — and I feel like I’m being pulled down by the riptide.

Gif of middle-aged white man wearing a suit drinking from a cup of tea/coffee from the TV series ‘The West Wing’ saying, “This is Washington; I can fully cooperate without giving them anything.”

I sensed being together with others whilst also being completely alone. I found myself drifting, stuck somewhere between multiple groups and interconnected circles, trying to figure where and to whom to devote my time and how to apportion my cognitive and emotional energy. I have an innate desire to collaborate, and I’m being taken down a quite different path. There was an emphasis away from the collective, of approaching things together with wonder, inquiry, and delight, towards the individual. It comes with a focus on brand building, the veneer of personality, being ‘confidently uncertain,’ and the network aspects of all this. I wonder how I’m being ‘normalised.’ How are disruptors or changemakers welcome here?

I’m conscious that I’m an inescapably active part of creating the system — I’ve absorbed the assumptions and values within it. If I don’t plan for the relationships or frameworks I want, I’ll just reproduce and perpetuate the systems I’m seeking to shift. I wonder if I’m being developed to think of myself as an equal part of the wider system. Or has the scheme recruited people that see the UK Civil Service as the pinnacle of it?

These contradictions are hidden in plain view and rest beneath the surface, there are written and unwritten rules here. Imagine if we could talk as easily about this ‘invisible in-between’ as we do about the ‘things.’ I have spent time thinking about the tasks, facilitation, and enabling conditions. I know I am searching for a way for my brain to process and organise my experience on the scheme. But here’s the catch — it can’t help me survive in a hostile place like the Future Leaders Scheme.

Try as I might, I’m something of an outsider. I am not supposed to be here.

Breaking through constraints

“We don’t learn from experiences; we learn from reflecting on experiences” - John Dewey

Learning allows us to write and rewrite ourselves, to restructure our understanding of the world. There is a temptation to view it in a mechanical sense: of consistency and conformity. It’s easy to simplify people, and the way they learn, into a one-dimensional repeatable cut out. But in today’s context, we also need curious, challenging, supportive spaces, which we collectively care for. The challenge is to design learning that enables us to construct our own journeys again and again, allowing us to remain at least partially uncomfortable, not only with the unknown, but also with our own certainty.

I’ve been called ‘intellectually restless,’ in a state of constant curiosity and challenge. In return, I want to be constantly tested and pushed, so that I morph and twist and change. What we share of ourselves — the most personal and intimate stories and experiences — is equally as important as any material covered in the curriculum. There should be space created for this as part of the scaffolding and structure of the scheme.

Image by Molly Costello. Caption: “I know our horizons hold danger and uncertainty and I know they hold something deeply nurturing, connecting, inviting…and we are building it together slowly and subversively. I believe in our determination, our care, our capacity to imagine, organize and build.“ h/t Cassie Robinson.

So, what was I searching for? I wanted to spend time in a place so silent — working at a pace so slow — that I would be able to hear myself think. Where I could leave behind the familiarity, certainty, and convenience of old ideas in favour of exploring new ones, with all the friction and fear that brings. A place that opens doors to tenderness and possibilities to cherish and that I would be able to feel the rhythm and flow of discussion and reflection. Where the group navigates the paths between where they are when they arrive and where they want to be at the end. I wanted to stumble with others in finding new vocabulary with which to shape and share new thinking, to envision different futures. I wanted deep and poignant reminders of this — and so much more.

Instead, I found myself deeply struggling with being facilitated to agenda. There was often not enough time to step back and reflect, to find anchor points for effective meaning-making. It meant we missed chances to keep the work moving forward depending on how it is shifting in real time. Over time, I have learned to pay attention to natural rhythms in the room, to the energy of the group (and not the clock). So, for me, it is important that those facilitating can do the same, that they bring depth and sensitivity to the process. I felt unable to challenge the way things were — I am still reflecting on what prevented me.

Across the module, we were not encouraged to question the walls that surround us. What do we do when we do not know what to do next, but are under pressure to do something? What happens when we need to be bold and brave? Too often something becomes anything, and anything is something that we have done before. What would happen if we discovered our own power to act? Questions are more transforming than the answers. But I think that it is harder to leave a space to be filled where people add value through reflection and conversation than to provide a completed canvas.

It gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? What would we need to be present to enable contribution? We’re strangers in a strange place on the scheme: how we choose to be together matters.

Belonging casts a deep shadow

I’ve been contemplating this thing called ‘belonging’ — it is a tricky idea, difficult for me to grasp. We tend to believe that it is important to ‘belong’ somewhere. But what is it exactly that we belong to? And by belonging do we gain something, and yet lose something else?

The scheme exists in different concentric cycles, with each cohort and intake having its own distinct micro-culture. This is an environment where social relationships emerge and are cultivated — knowledge is created and disseminated here. The boundaries of it exist equally in their fixity and fluidity; they are persistent, but porous. There is a tension of keeping things in while ensuring a secured, steady cycle of those who enter and those who exit.

Gif of Narissa (played by Peyton List) from the TV Series ‘Picard’ saying, “Resistence is futile.” Narissa is on the borg ship; she is a Romulan spy and member of the Zhat Vash.

To belong to the scheme, will it require me to conform, or behave, in certain ways? You see, I like being weird. I don’t feel the need to pretend I’m someone else just to fit the mould. I’ve found my community through One Team Gov and other related things, realising that there are an unusual set of people who make the world interesting, creative, and worth exploring. But I wonder how many people on the scheme are acting out the mould because they look around and see everybody else acting out the mould, because they have in turn looked around. How do we break the cycle and let people feel comfortable being themselves?

All these feelings are a reminder to me: just because you feel that you belong, does not mean that I do, and from the outside, you may never know.

Words can build bridges…and they can build walls

Language is powerful. The words we use to describe people and behaviours, and the way we use that language to frame, reveals so much about our attitudes and our values. It isn’t just about finding alternative words, but also about changing our practice.

We talk about personal branding a lot on the scheme, and I keep thinking about what “authenticity” really even is. And I’m reminded of “resilience.” Both words are used often without interrogating the challenges, problems, and structural issues people are routinely forced to confront. It idealises and normalises an individual’s capacity while also providing cover for not addressing the conditions that require resilience and authenticity.

Gif of Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody) from the TV Series ‘The OC’ saying, “You’re a Cohen now, welcome to a life of insecurity and paralysing self-doubt.” Seth is stood in the kitchen of his house (opposite Ryan Atwood) wearing a red striped polo shirt; Ryan is wearing a black t-shirt.

There was also much talk about being true to yourself. However, we are not the same versions of ourselves in every space. There are private and public versions, each held in a different context. So, when we’re asked to be true to ourselves, what version of ourselves would that be and what narrative would we tell? Some parts of ourselves are hidden because we treasure them…others, because it’s unsafe to share. In that sense, authenticity is a risk, it comes at personal cost.

I’m a bit tired of being told to constantly posture and position myself as someone of interest. Whilst heroes make for compelling stories, it’s time for such narratives to shift. We exist in relationship with each other. It is together that we step into the unknown and grow our capability to take collective action amidst the complexities of leading in the 21st century. There are questions we cannot answer alone. So, in the words of the poet William Stafford, ‘it is time for all the heroes to go home.’

Radical interpretations

What is the means through which those of us who care about the whole community can create a future for ourselves that is not just an improvement, but one of a different nature from what we now have? - Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Having been part of One Team Gov and other related things, I’ve seen the magic of weaving weird and wonderful relationships. Bringing people together in creative, generative ways energises and excites me. I’ve spent time thinking about how people’s energy to create things, their intrinsic motivation and excitement, is such a precious resource in community life, it drives everything. It is through people’s individual energy that things happen in groups…and there is infinite potential for the groups on the scheme. I want to find this with others there — fresh energy, new perspectives, and questing forward to be in service.

Gif of Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) from the TV series ‘The Expanse’ saying, “You underestimate my ability to break things.” As the spaceship’s engineer, she is stood next to some futuristic technology looking to fix it (or break it).

Why do I think any of this matters? Because there was an intense stirring in the depths of my soul: to wander, to break free, to create something different. There are horizons bigger than we see or feel in the moment — and these experiences can bridge to new destinations. The places to grapple with and reimagine what a UK Civil Service should look like start on its development schemes. It’s easy to forget that we once created the scheme; we can, therefore, also reimagine it. I’m wondering if others on the scheme also see imagination as a critical first step to new destinations.

By curating a space for dialogue and learning together, we can shine light on what’s possible and what’s needed to create the conditions for possibility. We could create more human, creative, and effective organisations. We could build the world we want to be in if this is truly the ‘Future’ Leaders Scheme. And then some interesting things might also happen.

Where to from here?

These are only parts of my experience. To speak is still a bold act and I’m reminded just how important working in the open is.

Today’s blog post has the messy parts — it poses more questions and fewer answers. All the while, I have been searching to do my deepest thinking with co-conspirators, whom I have not found (yet).

I am testing the boundaries of the scheme — either I change, or the environment is changed around me. I’m constantly negotiating with the need to resist and at the same time align with the templates that exist. In the process, I worry I will lose touch with myself. Perhaps it is inevitable that I might feel overwhelming loneliness and sadness through this time.

It is hard to learn to love this unfolding story of mine.

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