Hope in the dark on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)
Distance from the scheme is a salve
“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 previous reflections on the scheme here:
Hello dear reader,
This is my first deep breath. I’m standing here thinking about the scheme, about the scars it’s left on me. How it has left me breathless.
If the scheme was a year of transition, of transformation (of sorts), then now is the sweet, quiet relief of endings. I sometimes have to remind myself that the year really did happen and was not some kind of bad dream.
I am holding things together because I have to, not really because I’m ok. I have been kept afloat by sporadic moments of connection, sparks of joy and love and wisdom. There must be better things ahead for me. From the experience: am I better than I was? And will I be better than I am?
Maybe I’m about to find out.
So, here goes.
This blog post is in anticipation of the Future Leaders Scheme closing conference (that I refer to as the “Survivors’ Graduation,” in my head), which focuses on career next steps. I wrote about the launch event here.
The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone.
My heart is broken, but I also feel like my mind is, too. This year was not the one I expected. It was one of ebbs and flows, where I circled the edge of a whirlpool without a life jacket. How I longed for a safe harbour. But the scheme was like a shadow following me everywhere. Some weeks were worse than others.
I’m a soul without a home here. A fraction of myself. I was supplanting myself with others’ voices and opinions, letting them rattle on through my soul. In my neglect, my own voice became harder to coax out. I had to fight for my ability to think clearly and know who I am.
I did not understand what I was up against. I was in over my head — and too stubborn to leave. Whilst I haven’t survived the scheme that well, I was determined to see it through. And now, I feel the need to make the things I endured mean something. But there are no trails to follow that will lead me to the next moment.
Healing is never linear
Encouraging people to “bring their whole selves to work” without nuance is dangerous, in my opinion. It takes finesse and cache to show up as mostly yourself in places you don’t own. As @MindaHarts says, you belong in every room but not every room deserves you — and many cannot afford to stick around to find out. Because if you break the (unwritten) rules, you’ll experience real discomfort.
The pressure to assimilate surrounds me. It trickles down and manifests in the smallest ways, with people downplaying their differences to fit in. I’m constantly fighting a place that demands conformity. I self-edited myself to become more “accepted,” covering up the meaningful aspects of who I am. All the magical ways in which I am different.
All the while, I was being turned into someone I didn’t recognise. Now I’m left to somehow figure out who I wanted to be in the first place. And I will leave this place traumatised because of how overexposed the parts of me that needed protecting were.
I may not know who I am here, but I know who I don’t want to be. Perhaps that’s just as important.
You must lose your voice
“The act of speaking out makes you alone.” — Ravish Kumar
Every time I think about the scheme, I am struck by the silence that surrounds it. I’m in an immensely empty space that isn’t really empty but filled with everything. Why does no one speak out?
Several times over the last year, I had the sense that, having been blind, I could now see. The veil has been lifted: I’m seeing a charred landscape. While this has brought with it a certain bracing clarity, it has not come as a relief. You see, I entered to fully understand this world. But I didn’t know the scheme could be like this. Now I know, in painful detail.
And I broke the silence about it.
I caught all the chaotic thoughts swirling around in my head about my experiences and put them down. If only to help me to express and release the emotions built up inside me. Some of it emerged from my own struggle of feeling helpless. I felt as if I were shouting into the wind. What started as a tentative attempt to express myself has gradually turned into me pouring out my heartache, loneliness, and insecurities into blog post after blog post.
I’m learning to feel my emotions without becoming them, to feel my pain without becoming its narrative. I decided that the silence of others could not force my silence. Someday, maybe, this will no longer be the case. But for now, I have found my voice, and I refuse to be silent again.
We get the senior leaders we deserve
We live in a rapidly changing world — with the situation worsening in every way. This moment is one of multiple, overlapping crises: global pandemics, war, climate emergency, economic and health inequalities, crime, sickness, and many other forms of struggle. We are entering into a fragile reality, the space between stories.
What worked before, won’t work anymore. And leaving the system unchanged and hoping something will magically change, or that someone else will make the system healthy again, won’t work either. We are the system: it is our responsibility. There is no guarantee that better things will follow — but we must try.
The work to weave things, to build anew, is the most arduous work to undertake. It requires thinkers, makers, and doers that can rise to the scale of the challenges, examine the status quo, become more comfortable in uncertainty, and build bold visions for the future.
I’ve been ruminating on how the scheme gets rid of diversity and drives conformity. The expectations of a “good” (or “accepted”) civil servant are so thoroughly embedded as to feel unquestionable. I have not been encouraged to reflect on my mental models, to critically think about the scheme’s container. I have been steered towards quick, shallow thoughts, short-term ‘fixer’ skills, and emotional detachment. To be in the right place, at the right time. I felt rewarded for displaying overconfidence, for meticulously crafting my public persona.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Advancement for its own sake. It doesn’t have to be underlined, again and again, that the problem is the individuals, and not the way we have organised the scheme.
We need to ask ourselves: what kind of senior leaders do we want?
The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible
“To get to more radical outcomes, we need more radical ways of working together. It is both as simple and as hard as that” — Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda, and John Kania
We need space for radical imagination, to dream the spaces we want to see in the world and experiment with new ways and means of doing things. But spaces that are carefully curated and lightly held for radical creativity, imagination, and boldness are few and far between. These things don’t suddenly occur — they take cultivation, practice, reflection, and time.
For that, we need radicals inside the system, now more than ever. But these people are often the first to go. Because the spaces that radicals inside the system stand to do the work are unloving ones: unsafe and require too much of a person to stay.
Whilst the problems are about more than just the ‘talent’ pipeline — they’re also about the incentives once people are in the system — it is a good place to start. These schemes are crucial to defining and incentivising leadership in particular ways. They signal behaviour that is endorsed, enabled, and resourced. The eventual answer may be radical change — because nothing changes without incentives changing, only then will the balance of power and resources shift — but that needs to be based on understanding why the UK Civil Service is the way it is.
We very much need radicals in senior roles in the UK Civil Service to give succour and encouragement to radicals battling elsewhere. They’re needed to shine a flame of rebellious hope, clarity, and possibility: that we have agency in creating better, more beautiful futures.
Make no mistake: our organisations, public service, communities of place, and people within systems all depend on it. Before it’s too late.
Let it be written, let it be done
To speak is still a bold act.
I close with a thought of a path not taken. When things get difficult, is it better to remain inside the tent? I often reflect on the costs of doing this. For me, the alternative — that the shadows and contours of the scheme would remain hidden from view — was worse. So, I bore the costs of a space I found chronically damaging. Because if I cared about the future of public service, what other choice did I have?
It would be nice to think that my experience was all an aberration and could never happen again, but I suspect otherwise. This is not a good place. We must begin to understand just how dire it is if we wish, at last, to change it.
I’m homesick for a world that no longer exists. I have been trying to twist this debilitating mix of toxicity, trauma, and grief into something good and wonderful. I want to be still, to feel rhythm and waves. I want to become whole again. To live as gently as I can.
Over the decades of my career, I want to leave something behind. I want to leave behind a sense of boldness, grace, humour, moral courage, creativity, wonder and, yes, brilliance. I want to invent the future with others. In the words of Christopher Scipio: “I want to know I was a Good Ancestor, that I made things a little bit easier and a little bit better for those who will come after me.”
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here: