Mining the ruins on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)
Don’t be afraid of your own depth
“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 not sure what this blog post is about; I’m kind of figuring it out as I write.
I have spent much time and space trying to distil and properly articulate the thoughts in my head. At the same time, I’ve wanted to keep a lot of the things I was working out within myself separate. It’s also an ongoing practice for me to even let myself be seen in an intimate, up-close way.
Many of you have found my ramblings helpful in your own journeys. I’ve been delighted by the thoughtfulness and generosity of what people have shared with me in conversations. But there is much more than the things I write about: as my writing has gained its own momentum, other people’s sensemaking has enriched it and furthered my own.
So, here goes.
This blog post consists of:
- closing conference — which focuses on career next steps; and,
- module 1 on DELTA (Disability Empowers Leadership Talent) — a series of tailored workshops which aim to address individual development needs and potential barriers specific to disability.
The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone.
This experience continues to weave itself into the way I relate to myself and the world. Even when I pretend it doesn’t. I’ve discovered that this is a blog post series on being lost and in transition.
My writings are a narrative around the journey of recovery, of what it means to be alive on the scheme, in all its messiness and complexity, difficulty and beauty. Something to remind me that I’m not just surviving, but that I am seeking. And I will find myself again.
Feeling lost is part of the journey
Time has been blurring lately. This evocative place is staying with me — and I keep returning to it. All the things of consequence I want to talk about have a collection of debris behind them. I have so much to say but have told so few people about the enormity of my feelings.
I lost things here. And I felt so lost when I lost things.
I feel as if I have made a grave mistake in coming because I don’t know who I am or how to be anymore. I now live an ambiguous existence in this liminal space. And I keep trying to create a new fixed identity just to escape the horror that is living in between.
No one tells you this stuff before you arrive on the scheme.
Why? I wonder. Aren’t I done yet? It has felt like one large failure or one big punishment, or both these things and more. As with all loss and trauma, I’m impatient to be through it before I’ve really begun. I did not seek stuckness as an inevitable part of the experience. But if my time here has taught me anything, it’s that there isn’t a clear demarcation between ‘before’ and ‘after’ or ‘broken’ and ‘fixed’ or ‘lost’ and then ‘found.’
Change starts with me
“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” — Paul Virilio
This is a part of the blog post I have started many times, in many forms. It wants to be written — and I need to get it off my chest. But there are people who could be hurt by it being told publicly. I’m grappling with the dilemma of how to write about others, and by extension, myself.
It all started with a talk. Innocuous enough, right? Well, no.
At the scheme’s conference, a director from local government was invited to close the event with their candid reflections about working with the UK Civil Service. I was excited about this (constitutional affairs and public administration fascinates me!). I was expecting curiosity, generosity, and openness from others.
The director’s critique was thought provoking and insightful, albeit slightly uncomfortable to listen to. What was opened up was a space to reflect on our entrenched perceptions of one another and how we might work better together. You could see the audience’s exposedness when the director hit the nail on the head by describing precisely what we’ve been doing for quite some time.
All their observations about Civil Service cultures, and the machinery of government, have been written about by commentators for decades and decades. I’ve also previously written about the Civil Service’s superiority complex here. Nothing shared should come as a surprise. Still, the statements made were met by a wall of denial from the Civil Service population in the room — and they shouldn’t have been.
The Civil Service has a narrow view of leadership. Whilst we are not a homogeneous ‘blob,’ we are often remote from the realities of public-facing services (or ‘frontline’). Local government can get impatient with slow national responses, preferring to act. They have a holistic view of their communities by being place focused. In the face of complexity, their leaders are catalysts, stewards, and conveners of bold systems shifts.
There did not appear to be any genuine recognition of the knowledge, expertise and experience that local government brings to policy making. Their role as policymakers remained unacknowledged. Hardest of all was hearing this official urging civil servants to ‘stay close to the ground’ and in touch with the realities of what people are responding to in their locality. Being in places where you can be impactful is a good principle to live by.
What unites all the issues identified is not poor planning or bad luck: it is systemic. But the reflections triggered a visceral reaction, a torrent of criticism and harsh questions followed from the audience during the Q&A portion. It was the angriest voices that dominated in a self-reinforcing way. The backlash was used to get the director to kowtow to the group and walk back their comments by apologising. The effrontery was breathtaking.
But a mirror has to be looked at to be seen.
I’m going to pause here and say that there are several things the organising team could have done differently. This ranges from effective context setting to placement during the day to facilitating a reflection activity to doing this sort of thing little and often. The anonymous comments on Slido could have been called out and addressed head on. And it is vital to protect the person that is critiquing, if they’ve been asked to play that role.
But none of that addresses the fundamental problem that statements made during the scheme indicated one thing, and behaviour that afternoon indicated something else entirely. We appeared to avoid unwelcome and inconvenient feedback and were very resistant to challenge or questioning. We didn’t recognise that the mirror was being held up. Instead of sitting with the overwhelm and discomfort, and having compassion for how stuck we all are, we entered into a vicious cycle of hurt and blame.
I’m also trying to understand ‘me’ in all this. Why didn’t I intervene, say something? I should know and do better. I’ve done so much “inner work.” I’ve practised and shifted so much. But I feel so alone here — and in feeling alone, I do not feel brave enough. It has felt safer to stay on the edges than to be seen at the centre. I feel flawed and, sometimes, I don’t recognise myself here. I cannot passably pretend that I am a good leader anymore, which has led to a cycle of guilt, shame, and anxiety.
Becoming a good leader that generates “good leadership” across systems is difficult. How do I survive and thrive and keep my principles intact? What kind of internal (or external) work do I need to be doing? That afternoon, I acquired so much awareness of the strength and empowerment needed to call this type of behaviour out next time.
This is the work of a lifetime. And it lasts a lifetime. There is no arrival or shortcut or quick fix. Just a reminder of lifelong practices that need to be honoured. And I think there’s something potent about letting what I’m struggling with be witnessed as much as overcoming that struggle. I won’t pretend I’m supposed to keep all my challenges quiet. Or that I should wait until there’s a more ideal version of myself before I share or show up.
But ultimately, we must have some sense of how to account for our time in the Civil Service, for the problems our successors will inherit. This experience was a depressing indication of the future leadership of the Civil Service. If we can’t even listen to criticism, there is no possible hope of learning from it. And if we don’t learn from it, there is no possible hope of improving public service.
The problems were never ‘over there,’ they were ‘in here’ all along.
Still here, still here, still here
“If every week I climb up the hill and light the beacon, then wait a while and watch for fires lighting in response, then eventually I’ll find a community. A network of people who link up not because they’re identical, but because they’re dominoes.” — Jo Hanlon-Moores
As I continue to emerge out of the cocoon of this past year, and despite all my trepidation about continuing, I made it to the first module of DELTA. This element has only been going for three years — both surprising and unsurprising — and has quite different objectives (below).
Here, in contrast, I’m experiencing a social connection that I’ve only glimpsed before. I appreciated the distinct absence of leadership models — the individual was centred instead. There were dogs and cats and humans in attendance (there was a dog called ‘pudding,’ which I found inspired). It’s a small cohort mostly from digital, HR, and transformation. As far as I could tell, I’m one of the few from a large-scale infrastructure programme.
I’ve been enjoying thoughtful and reflective conversations with the other participants — all extraordinary civil servants and even more so extraordinary humans. I feel immense gratitude at what they shared; I know how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who have overcome so much. And there’s similarity and commonality in the stories shared: people shielding part of themselves away as a form of protection.
For some, it was the first time they had spoken openly about their struggles. Allowing the conversation to run its course and having a space held lightly and gently were things I’ve missed! This is a place where people pull each other along with them while they are growing. Because the way you build is just as important as where you end up.
Finding the right people for me on the scheme has been so hard. I’ve struggled for a long time in such big groups of people. I felt seen by very few. Putting myself out there in new ways and really letting people in when there is the potential of judgement and criticism is deeply difficult in a place that hurts. For a short while, it was safe to tell others some of my own struggles. I was not treated like I’m broken, singled out, or othered. I was allowed the grace of being human, of being exactly who I am: someone whose core self spills over with emotions and sensations and ideas.
The challenges about being a senior leader when you have a long-term health condition or disability are stark. I cannot seem to find a middle ground between forgetting I have a disability and constantly being asked how I am and to do things I cannot do. I was not born with my disability. I remember a time when I wasn’t disabled. Sometimes, I find it really hard to accept my disability as a part of who I am, even after 14 years. And I don’t feel the need to make other people more comfortable and or educate them about my condition.
Something I’ve learned slowly, over time, is that I continue to learn in new ways. And here is an open space to talk about these things and more, waiting to be filled with more of the connection I long for. There was some vital energy driving me to dive in and be more vulnerable. Now that I’ve found it, I don’t want to lose that magic.
Is this my sacred space? Probably not. But I am hearing its call to rejuvenate my spirit. Perhaps I have finally found a place on the scheme where I feel more ready to create relationships, ask for help, and be seen. That’s what I always end up coming back to — that I can make something useful, even beautiful, out of this circumstance.
Be bold. Be brilliant. Be kind.
To speak is still a bold act.
I’ve come to the bittersweet realisation that I can mine my disappointments here for strength and inspiration. I keep reminding myself that these moments — filled with sadness, vulnerability, disappointment, and longing — are precious resources in the wider story of my life.
Being a human is often an embarrassing, humbling, and confusing mess. I’m trying to understand what I’m enduring, to make more room for who I am. I still believe the most courageous act is letting myself be seen, every day, on the outside. And I know sharing in this way creates abundance and generosity in ways I can’t even see.
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here: