I don’t care about career ladders

Some personal reflections on leadership

I don’t care about career ladders
My family, with my pilot dad in the back

When my dad was 19, he dropped out of the engineering program at The University of Manitoba to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The big joke in my family is that my grandfather yelled at him that he would never do anything with his life if he quit university. But the opposite happened: he was decorated with medals, heralded a hero. He rescued a plane over Japan during the Korean war. He was equerry to the Queen for a while. He came from a city where the Golden Boy was the unofficial mascot and he was the Golden Boy of all who knew him.

He was humble and down-to-earth, but he was also charismatic and talented and handsome and clever and brave, in a time when white men who had those qualities held all the power without question. So, he moved through the ranks and eventually became a Brigadier General.

And then, shortly after being promoted, he quit and left the Air Force for good.

When I was a teenager, I asked him why he didn’t want to be a General and he told me this: Generals get paid to schmooze and go to meetings and do paperwork, and all he wanted to do was fly. So when the chance came to become the head pilot of brand new charter airline he took it, because it meant he could do both. He continued to fly regularly until he physically couldn’t any longer when he was medically retired at 65.

So, this is the narrative of leadership that I inherited and internalized from him: That doers do and leaders watch, and there’s much more value and joy in being a doer than a watcher. Be deferential to authority, but also suspicious of those at the top because they might be motivated more by ego than passion.

Not surprisingly, my feelings towards leaders and leadership have always been complicated.

A few days ago my colleague Heather-Lynn Remacle shared her candid thoughts on leadership (go read it!) and I’ve been thinking about my own since.

In the hierarchical sense, I’m not a leader, I’m a doer. In the BC Gov context, the line is drawn fairly clearly: doers are in the union, leaders are outside of it. I’m happy with where I am right now.

In every position I’ve held, I’ve always shown a lot of leadership — I facilitate communities, I’ve been a mentor for years, I’m a manager, I work openly, I create things that others can benefit from, I advocate for others, I influence up whenever I see an opportunity to do so.

I’ve never cared about career ladders and though I do my best not to judge other people’s decisions, I can‘t help but feel a bit suspicious of those who do. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really great leaders, but the handful of not great ones have been people who were in leadership positions for reasons of ego, ambition or hoarding power, without a true desire to empower, support and enable others.

My career philosophy has always been, I will keep doing what I’m doing until I don’t feel like doing it anymore. When it comes to career moves, I tend to trust my feelings and my gut instincts, both of which have never propelled me upwards. I don’t lack courage or imagination to see myself in these roles, but perhaps deep down I lack the confidence, not in myself but in the institutions I work in to be a place where someone like me could thrive.

I can be a bit of a trouble maker (for good.) I’m ranty. I question decisions and call them out if I think they’re not the right ones. I say things like, “I wish we had more leaders who were bold enough to do things differently.”

This makes me feel guilty, because it’s easy to heckle from the safety of the audience. So I often think, if I really cared about making the play better, perhaps I should try my hand at taking on one of the acting roles.

I don’t really know where this is going, so …

There’s a tool in design thinking called Hope and Fears. Here are my hopes and fears for the day that I might have 1) the desire and 2) opportunity to move into a leadership role.

My fears:

  • I value my mental health too much and it’s sometimes hard to find leaders who model (not just advocate for but actually model) a healthy work/life balance
  • And because of above, working a flexible schedule is something I really value (I currently have every other Monday off.) But this is something that is explicitly not supported where I work for people in management roles. (This is worse in Canada, btw. Many of my managers in the UK worked flexible schedules.)
  • Many leaders don’t have time or make time to do the things that are important to me like sharing/blogging openly, contributing to communities etc. So it’s always sent the message to me that if I want to keep doing those things, this isn’t the right place. (But there are some that do, like Heather, so perhaps that perception is shifting in me.)
  • Extroversion and charisma are celebrated in leadership, but I’m introverted, awkward and inarticulate. I don’t see many people like me in higher ranks, or if I do they are better at hiding it than I am.
  • My imposter syndrome is afraid that I will finally be caught out for the fraud I am, who knows nothing about anything and is full of beans.
  • There’s also the consideration that there actually aren’t that many design leader roles in Canadian government. Our design maturity is still a bit low, our career pathways aren’t properly flushed out, and the opportunities I do see seem to be created for a specific person so aren’t truly open. But I think (hope) this is changing.

My hope:

I really just have one hope: That there really is a place (or will be one day) for me to show up as myself, work on the things that I think are important, and have the ability to both hold and distribute power.

While working four days a week of course.