Lead or Follow
Lead, Follow or Get Out Of The Way
Once I worked with a career counselor who gave me some great advice: “Try to think of work as an anthropology experiment,” she said to me. “Observe the people like you’ve embarked on a field trip, and write down what you see.”
It was the best advice anybody ever gave me, not just about coping with an unpredictable and stressful work environment, but generally about coping with life. If you can observe yourself and write down what you are feeling, or capture it in some other way (for example, drawing or photography or music) then despite your actual lack of control over many things, you perceive yourself as empowered because at the very least your experiences matter, you’re telling your story, and it is your story to tell.
There is a reason they call work “work,” and that is the fact that normally it is stressful. When I first started working in government, at a different agency than I work at right now, I participated in a significant reorganization. Naturally, people were upset about it.
But we had a gifted chief of staff. In response to concerns that people would lose out professionally because of the reorg, he said, “Do not worry about dividing the pie. The pie gets bigger when you share.”
Supporting the chief of staff was my boss’s boss, the director of communications. He was talking to us in a staff meeting one day, and as I recall he was talking about organizational change. “The train is leaving the station,” he said. “You’ve got to get on the train.”
Now I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, my grandmother (may she rest in peace) was at Auschwitz, and so when I hear about “the train leaving the station” some terrible intergenerational trauma is unleashed. So I don’t like that phrase.
But I can relate to “get on the bus,” as in, “the organization is moving in a certain direction, and you can express your views all you want before the decision is made, but once it is made you either have to join up and execute or find another place to work.”
Which brings me to the present day. A few weeks ago, I took an excellent training course where we learned what it means to be a great staff officer. One of the most fundamental things I took away from this course was the importance of supporting a decision once it has been made—whether or not you agree with it. This isn’t to say that you can’t have your opinions, and even share them, but there is a time and a place and limit for everything.
I am the most skeptical, questioning person in the world. But at the end of the day, the team cannot support endless griping and negativity.“
“Say what you have to say,” my mother used to say, “and then let’s get on with business.”