Why the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) fails — and what to do about it
Is there any alternative?
“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:
Note: This blog post was made better by the thoughtful and considered reflections of Sam Villis and Stefan Czerniawski; without them it wouldn’t have been as good. Thank you, both.
Hello dear reader,
I spent most of last week and this week thinking about how the issues with the Future Leaders Scheme are systemic. But I’ve had a hard time writing it.
Why have I had a hard time writing it? Well.
Some of it has been the problem of the enormity of the issue. I have spent a lot more time pulling on a lot more threads. But I also realised that this isn’t the only reason I’ve had a hard time writing. Mostly, it’s because I can’t stop thinking about the grief, ghosts, and persistent sense of hiraeth. Constant tension leaves its mark. And these experiences just…have invaded my heart and mind, leaving invisible imprints in their wake.
Along with that…there’s grappling with what more I can do to keep this from happening again. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I bear part of that collective responsibility for where we’ve ended up. There is something here that I have to solve, maybe, or see.
I’m hurting, and several people have expressed that they want me to represent that hurt with care and generosity. I want to make sure I do it right. Or as I right as I can.
So, here goes.
Treading the fine line between conformity and rebellion
“Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future” — Peter Senge
In my blog post series, I wrote that the system is our collective responsibility. I wrote about the sorts of people we would need to make the system healthy, weave things, and build anew. Often, examining the reasons why we don’t end up there and things are the way they are is best attempted when one is no longer entangled in that very system.
That being said, I shared my reflections openly about the scheme openly, whilst still inside the UK Civil Service. The things that were eating away at me. I felt as though something huge was moving beneath a deep ocean and I could only see the ripples on the surface. In doing so, I had to be bracingly honest about myself, to go to a vulnerable place. There was, it turned out, no answers to be found.
Instead, I understood how complicated it felt, and how hard it was to make the choice to be open. I was not even sure I was making the right choice at the time. I could only hope that my personal story was helpful to others who were struggling with similar issues.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about the scheme, but others are yet to feel comfortable to speak up. There are many reasons why the whole experience of even talking about this is so difficult. It is tied up with power and resources, the ability to acquire and use social and cultural capital.
But I also have been reflecting about how to talk about this — or rather, about what it is that I am really talking about. And is there another level to talk about it on? That’s what I am clumsily pursuing here.
Forever is composed of nows
I’m considering where this story has been heard before. The one around the structural and systemic issues in the UK Civil Service. A place that has become so complex that we can no longer steer it in our chosen direction. But also a place potentially transformable through the magic and wisdom of the people who make it up.
The schemes can be viewed in this light. They set out the expectations of senior leaders, playing a crucial role in the leadership we end up with. In some ways, it reflects what has gone before. And in others, an uprooting of everything.
The rushing power that runs beneath the scheme — where is it taking us? We have no hope of understanding this (or where we might want to go in future) without understanding where we started from.
The civil servants of today’s leadership schemes will become the permanent secretaries of tomorrow’s organisations — and some will go on to be chief executives of other parts of public service. We do not just affect our own system, we affect others, too.
Ultimately, decisions we make in public service are only as good as the senior leaders we have at the top of our organisations. Sometimes the steps we need to take to get there are the hardest to see.
The work is not done, and we are not done with the work
The scheme is systemically rooted in the current educational, cultural, and corporate structures of the UK Civil Service. It is the result of a fractured process that presumes baton passing rather than a team sport.
By attempting to mould people into a single pre-defined model of leadership, rather than linked to the overarching problems that need to be solved, the scheme is built on the wrong things. It focuses on competencies, models, and techniques, which in some ways is like rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
This one-size-fits-all training causes more problems than it solves: developing people that still feel inexperienced, overwhelmed, under-equipped, and under prepared for the future. It also creates a homogeneity of thinking, self-referential nature, and a culture of conformity and emotional detachment (i.e., “studied neutrality”). The harm and damage done, on an individual and systemic level, is barely even seen. There is a catalogue of things — socio-economic background, disability, ethnicity, neurodiversity, educational attainment, lived experience, and so on — which require us to even be able to do this.
It is hard to think about the mechanisms that are generating and reproducing these biases — or what to do about them. The scheme is an important way in which the UK Civil Service could change for the better. I don’t think we focus on this enough.
If we want to overcome the systemic issues behind the scheme, then we need to change the thinking that led to them to begin with (starting with what constitutes good leadership). The diversity of the people who make up the UK Civil Service matters a lot.
The antidote is always turning deeper towards each other
The systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.
Leadership matters. It is a service to the people that do the work.
Many before me have made the case for creating an empathetic, kind, bold, and open UK Civil Service. Their reflections are a reminder of what we are building and why, even if we have no idea whether our choices will point us in new directions. And for a moment, they make impossible horizons feel real.
I would humbly add one more thing. We also need to develop something more profound, and rare: people with the ability to think and react critically and independently. We must not only tolerate alternative views, but also encourage them.
It is an opportunity to reimagine the way things are done: a scheme with these things as a central tenet, which leads us to a place where all forms of individuality and difference are included and celebrated. And that makes redesign of the scheme absolutely necessary.
Because nothing can change until we change the things inhibiting change.
So, what might a revised approach to leadership development which is heterogeneous, outward looking, non-conformist, and emotionally engaged look like? (h/t Stefan Czerniawski)
I don’t know. But I’m willing to find out with others.
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here: