This morning I read a lovely piece by Ermintrude, reflecting on her ambition and her relationship with leadership. Like all her writing, it’s straightforward, honest and full of humility. And like all good writing, it’s had me preoccupied all morning reflecting on where I stand on the themes the piece raises.
As a kid, I received mixed messages about ambition. On the one hand, my parents, like many of their generation were all too familiar with thwarted ambition and encouraged me to follow through on anything I showed an interest in. They didn’t let the constraints they experienced growing up during the war colour their attitude to the opportunities that were open to me. They were very aware though of their place in the social order which led to the mixed messages. Any success for me was always grounded with “We don’t want you getting ideas above your station” and being caught out “blowing your own trumpet” carried deep shame, especially if your trumpet blowing was witnessed publicly. I used to love appearing in the school plays but I could see my parents in the second row switch from heartfelt pride to deep felt embarrassment when the applause started. It wasn’t that big a deal though – far more doors were opened than remained closed.
My first job after leaving school was with Nat West Bank. Goodness knows how I ended up in a bank. Lots of my peers from school found themselves against their better nature in a bank. I think the careers master was on a commission. It was generally accepted that in your first year as a junior bank clerk you were expected to do all the menial jobs in the machine room and when the new cohort started the following year, you could start doing one of the more specialist jobs. This was 1977/78 and there was a strange attitude that there were “men’s jobs” and there were “women’s jobs” and never the twain should meet. I never understood what differentiated one from the other. For example, men were given the standing orders clerk role whilst the women did the opening of new accounts. I was no rebel, just eager to try everything and so pushed back against this odd stereotyping and in my second year had a bash at both the men’s and women’s jobs. One other attitude was just plain offensive. It was 40 years ago but came straight from another century. I worked in the Southall branch and there were several Asian women working there. The manager decided that their real names were too difficult to pronounce and gave them all English names. I’m not kidding. Paramjeet and Anooka became Pam and Annie. I couldn’t do it but it set up several collisions because the women themselves generally accepted the manager’s insult. My time at the bank ended unceremoniously. I came back from my August holiday with my ear pierced. The assistant manager called me into his office and informed me that the customers would be offended by my piercing (it was only a stud). “Let’s face it Mark. For the last two years we’ve been trying to fit your square peg into a round hole”. At the time my great ambition was to be a super cool Mod rather than a super cool standing orders clerk, so we went our separate ways.
From there, I joined the Civil Service, namely the DHSS. Their dress code was astonishingly lax compared to the bank. In 1979, I wouldn’t have been seen dead not wearing my tonic suit and tassle brogues, so still stuck out like a sore thumb for the opposite reasons to Nat West. On my very first day, I encountered the bizarre hierarchical structures that exist within the civil service. There were four of us who started on the same day and we were allocated a bank of desks just inside the door of a huge open plan office. This was to be our home for the 13 weeks of our induction period. We were given a huge pile of manuals that we were expected to work through. Coming back from lunch that first day, I discovered my chair had gone missing. The training manager came out of her room carrying a new chair. She was very apologetic and told me that I’d been allocated the wrong chair that morning – “EOs can have chairs with arms. COs have armless chairs”. Neither me, nor my fellow newcomers had realised we were different grades. They were all EOs (Executive Officers). I was one ring down the ladder – a Clerical Officer and a chair with arms is a chair above my station. There were no men’s and women’s jobs within the DHSS and I was still eager to try everything. I did my six months on the front desk, did six months visiting pensioners in their homes helping them review their claims. It was great fun. I did buy into the hierarchical structure and twice applied unsuccessfully for promotion to a chair with arms. They let me “act up” for 18 months but my eventual rise to permanent EO came about rather oddly. I was having my annual appraisal and my manager announced that he was recommending me for promotion. I asked him what I’d done differently and he told me that he was having his tea break in the rest room whilst I was directing a rehearsal of the staff Christmas show! “You convinced me you have the necessary leadership qualities”. It was the first time I’d heard the word “leadership” mentioned. It was bollocks of course. I wasn’t leading the cast: I just knew how to deliver a funny line.
Next stop career wise was a local authority. If I’d been ambitious, I was in the wrong job. Whereas in the civil service you can move between the DHSS and the Home Office for example, in a local council you can’t even move from housing benefit to town planning within the same council. It’s a very limiting ladder. After three years, I applied and got the job as Training Manager. It was a higher grade and more money but that wasn’t the motivation. I was challenging myself but my instinct was that I would be good at it. And as the DHSS Christmas shows had shown, I do like playing to an audience. I quickly learned that it was a job that really suited me. Being responsible for everyone’s induction training, I realised that I could have a huge influence over how people did their job without the power or responsibility of being a manager. I know that “manager” was in my job title but that said more about the council’s propensity to self importance than it said about what I actually did. This was 1988 and I suppose was the start of what is now endemic within councils – everyone is a manager. As the years passed my role expanded and I was able to run courses on personal and professional development. I even ran several “leadership” courses. The staff liked them: the management less so. Their ideas about leadership were very different to mine.
Nowadays leaders are expected to announce what makes them great leaders to the world. There’s a doctor on Twitter who bursts uninvited to any thread to announce his leadership credentials and why his ways work. I find him very funny but he is deadly serious. You cannot be a 2018 leader if you don’t tell the world what you’re passionate about. No Leader’s Twitter profile is complete without a cacophony of trumpets announcing that you’re passionate about this, that or the other. Back in 1998, the audience for your pompous vanity was much smaller. I recall sitting in check in during my counselling diploma training. The peacocks quickly learn that check in an opportunity to strut your stuff, show you’ve mastered the lingo and score several points at your peer’s expense. On this particular day, one of my peers made this astonishing claim: ” I’ve been processing my process and discovered that I am able to give 100% unconditional positive regard to every person in my life”. In the ensuing silence, you could see everyone else’s unconditional positive regard go for a burton as 29 checkmated counselling students wrestled with the same thought, “Oh for goodness sake. Shut the fuck up”. It’s not enough anymore to have ambitions or to achieve your ambitions. Now you need your achievements and ambitions witnessed and validated by the entire world. My parents would be bewildered.
Ermintrude’s post focused on work and I have followed the same. The older I get though, I find I haven’t changed much at all from that eager junior clerk except that my ambitions and challenges are likely to lie elsewhere other than work. This year, I’ve been fiercely motivated around my weight training. Last week I decided to try and write a farce. The challenge in plotting a farce is enormous and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m often asked to take on writing/speaking/advocacy projects and my criteria for acceptance is very different from how it might have been 25 years ago. Nowadays I’ll take on stuff if it’s going to be good fun and/or I’ll learn something from the experience. That’s my criteria.
And I still have no wish to be a leader. Horses for courses.
Having written this post, I’m not sure how much it’s got to do with Ermintrude’s piece from earlier. I think I’ve just rambled on trying to find reasons why I’ve shied away from being a leader. But I also feel that ambition is in the eye of the beholder and never needs justification. My favourite part of my job is when I get my clients on to their interests and what they can do to make their life more fulfilling. Every response is totally unique and often comes as a surprise to the person who’s mouth the words have just left. Whatever they come up with, it rarely involves climbing up the career ladder.