Looking for balance on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)
Remembering what it felt like when it felt the worst
“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,
I’m ready to talk now. I wasn’t before. But I’m ready now.
I can’t help but feel the pull of something different, something more village minded and deserving of my time. I have an interest in finding out what makes others tick, what gifts they have to share, and what hopes they have for the future.
Instead, I’m constantly trying to put together the many pieces of this story that are unfolding. The road has been challenging and the bumps often navigated alone. Perhaps there are things that are only understood retrospectively when many years have passed, and the story has ended.
For now, while the story continues, the only thing I can do is tell it as it develops, bifurcates, and knots around itself. And it must be told many times, in many different words, and from many different angles, before anything can be understood.
So, here goes.
The third module consisted of:
- day 1 and day 2 — the skills to operate in complex environments, using influence and political awareness to achieve results for yourself and your teams.
The problem with trying to tell this story is that it has no beginning, middle, or end. Why did you apply to the scheme? Perhaps no one knows the real answer. Why did you come? Sometimes I ask myself the same question. I don’t have an answer yet.
How do I explain that it is not inspiration that drives me to tell this story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do I say: No, I do not find inspiration here, in a place that is broken, that somehow I am now a part of, so I am also broken with it. How do I say: I feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and I’m trying to figure out how to do something healthy with that. How do I say: I’m so tired of the toll that this psychological storm is taking on me, of grappling with the terrifying prospect of lasting wounds and scars.
How do I say that?
The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone.
Writing before about the “double bind” of disruptors or changemakers, and now we’re going to add a new wrinkle to this whole ordeal: the “Hawthorne effect.” What’s that, you ask? Good question.
The Hawthorne effect is “when individuals modify or improve their behaviour in response to being observed i.e., by superiors.” The scheme continues to set up lessons on observation changing behaviour and engaging in herd behaviour (known as the “bandwagon effect”).
Whilst the Hawthorne effect (and the true meaning of it) is contested, it unexpectedly shows up on the scheme. It also demonstrates that a lot of people can follow down the garden path without ever looking too closely at how they got there (which is what happened with the “Hawthorne effect” study).
We think leaders in the UK Civil Service should critically think for themselves. They should be creative, effective, and independent. Leaders should offer solutions, weigh in on everything, and plough ahead with doing all the things. The tendency to gather around the group is overwhelmingly strong: “If everyone is doing it, then I should too.”
But if someone seeking a leadership role uses their head when carrying out their duties — questioning, debating, setting their own path, never blindly following others — then we react negatively. We perceive them as being “troublemakers,” “disruptors,” and “unreasonable rule breakers” because they aren’t following the “culture script.” They may have some wins but will also more than likely get in trouble, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. We really want our leaders to follow orders without questioning, for bandwagons to take over.
The last paragraph of the brief (below) illustrates to those on a scheme that you should only attempt to do good things if you can be confident the Permanent Secretary is watching. Act differently if you know you are being observed: doing good things is being mentally traded against career progression.
The pressure to conform and the power of social influence is especially prevalent here. It is a place that values collegiality and amiability. You see, civil servants look to their peers to obtain guidance about the proper behaviour should be. It’s easy to assume that others have a better grasp of what to do in a given situation. And the feeling of belonging to a reinforcing collective is a seductive one. Not only does this enhance certain voices, but it can also minimise the variety of perspectives that are brought to the table.
There are dilemmas, traps, and repercussions for going against the norm in the UK Civil Service. It is much simpler to go along with what everyone else is doing, to play the game really well by following a misplaced faith in the “wisdom of the crowd.” But the UK Civil Service “crowd” isn’t always wise, and it isn’t always right. It’s difficult to tide over the noise and have some independence of thinking, to stand out amongst the crowd. ‘Be true to yourself’: well, that can be downright perilous.
So, yes, worry about the bandwagons. Maybe it’s time to get off.
Navigating the labyrinth
The scheme is a ceaseless process of transition — a long, invisible, non-linear process. I’ve stayed here long enough to observe that once you’re here, you’re ready to give (almost) everything to stay and play a part in this great theatre of belonging. Play the game and the Senior Civil Service beckons: no matter the cost, you will give everything for this. Perhaps you will never want to be your former self again for there are too many things that ground you to this new life.
The scheme provides a means to subtly use an existing network and resources to navigate the system, thriving on word of mouth. Here, information circulates and is widely shared: from accessing the Senior Civil Service network, to positioning yourself for opportunities, to advocating for certain individuals to get into their next job. And it matters a lot where the message is overwhelmingly, “I want to develop the people that remind me of me.”
There are few signs and fewer people you can ask for assistance or directions, so it is easy to get lost. What awaits is a bewildering and often daunting reality, with little in the way of guidance to help you adapt. The scheme’s labyrinth architecture is, in a way, a replica of the UK Civil Service’s system. And, as in any labyrinth, some find their way out (or up) and some don’t. We’re not all in the same boat here, just the same storm.
If people are made a certain way in the UK Civil Service…then it’s probably on its leadership schemes. These spaces are where social pressures are most intense, subtle put downs at every turn, and the narrative is often shaped by the loudest or most confident voices in the room. We are often asked to question who makes the rules…but not to break the rules themselves: rock the boat (or make your superiors uncomfortable), you’ll leave or be asked to leave. I’ll admit that the ability to sit comfortably with the cognitive discord is one that evades me. The implication is clear though, this distress is your problem, not ours.
Goodbye to the 9 Box Grid, the fad that won’t die
We categorise people in the UK Civil Service. We put them into convenient boxes — those marked out with ‘talent’ and those without. The 9 Box Grid reminds us of the obvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can fit neatly into one of 9 boxes. Of course, some brilliant people end up in the top right boxes and, by extension through the talent reviews, on the scheme. But we’ll never know who else could have been there, too.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been congratulated on attaining a rare place on a high potential scheme. It is the sprinkling of gold dust on the select few. And the ‘rest’? They’re typically excluded from these opportunities. This artificial and limiting classification reduces the attention paid to the qualities and potential of each individual. Preconceived notions of what people can do, and how they can grow and develop will keep things from happening, not make them happen. It is quite possibly one of the main reasons why we can end up with individualistic approaches which pit people against each other and a scarcity mindset that only ‘one’ person can be at the top.
I find it impossible to fit myself neatly into the boxes provided for me on the scheme. I feel reduced to just one or a few characteristics of who I am, with the rest of my spirit ignored. I’m too niche and disruptive. I don’t feel the need to have to be the type of person I’m artificially designated to be, to have a very specific version of ambition. And I don’t appreciate being put in a (badly labelled) box. Most of all, I find it isolating to sit amongst leadership where my own views run so counter cultural to the rest of the UK Civil Service.
When we label people, we end up limiting our curiosity about a person. It’s putting people into boxes that reduce them to labels, which limits our abilities to see them as much more than a label. What if we stopped putting people in contained boxes and acknowledged the variety of attributes that make them human?
But, perhaps, it’s not the boxes that are the problem. They’re simply a product of the culture, seen as a neutral and objective process. Fundamentally, there is little appetite for change: those that are products of a long-established leadership culture have been successful within the current system. It would go a long way to explain why so many are unwilling to change to a new game.
I’ve found that those who speak most about the power of curiosity, bravery, and boldness are the ones most resistant to the forces of change. The schemes teach talented people to play and persistently win the game, such that their own fate is tied to surviving within it. How many are really prepared to challenge that and bring about change?
Ambiguous grief is uncertain and hard to define
In the midst of the scheme, I have a longing for a place to which there is no return, an echo of something that can never be found, no longer exists, and can never be gone back to. Past Me was hopeful that some of the brittleness of the scheme’s spaces would soften. But Present Me is trying to reconcile herself to the idea that this is just the way things are now.
I have a bit of anxiety in naming this grief, and in grieving the various day to day losses on the scheme, that I might expose myself as not grateful enough and not fitting within the normative boundaries that have been so cleanly scripted for me. But I don’t have a script for this loss. I don’t know why these changes and ruptures feel so painful, but they do. How do I grieve a loss that I cannot even pinpoint?
How we start matters
To speak is still a bold act. The most important realities are often completely invisible to us (and will remain that way if we let them). In the words of Stefan Czerniawski, boldness has a price, sometimes a high one. But not boldness has a price too, which is in a different currency, but may convert to a still higher price.
I cannot escape the state of despondency or sense of doom in this place. The pain, the trauma, the grief — it’s all still there. I have the compulsion to talk about it, all of it, everything that was said and unsaid, all of the things I have to swallow or forcefully forget, the detailed tedium, the unspeakable exhaustion, the feeling that I can’t keep doing what I’m doing and yet have to show up and do it again.
I ask myself: What will I remember from this time, and how will I remember it? When the strange experience of enduring the Future Leaders Scheme coagulates into history, how will I tell that story? What will I focus on? And will I wash out all the raw, human stuff — the kind of stuff you’ll find in these blog posts — and leave only a clean record of key dates and facts?
Or will I carry with me the memory of something more? And will I use that memory to do good, and do better?
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here:
Future Leaders Scheme
The systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.
I have developed a wiki to openly document my learning journey: