This article offers some ways to think about the recent (voluntary) separation of some 44 executives from the civil service after the leadership assessment exercise. The matter must also be viewed in the context of the unfortunate leak, causing something equivalent of national humiliation for those who alas, missed the mark. It was interesting to observe the reactions— sudden surges of sympathy, equal expressions of the event being almost poetic in its justice.
I find it very hard to completely agree with either. I wish everybody well: those who made it and those who didn’t. The former now has the onus of living up to a label and great expectations. The latter, well, many of them are walking away with 2 years of pay and pension benefits, so let’s not feel too bad for them, especially considering that we have many, many people to feel bad for in the current climate.
Now, we could briefly entertain the thought that perhaps, the assessment metric was flawed. But for the sake of this piece, we can proceed with the belief that the assessment tested something and many missed the mark of whatever was being measured.
The assessment may not have told us everything, but it told us something. It told us that perhaps, some individuals may have been kind and caring about their subordinates but did not really understand what the point of their job really was, or that some individuals may have been intellectually proficient but did not possess the basic traits of a competent manager that transcends cultures, languages and countries. And worst of all, some individuals may have been found to not care about their subordinates, not really understand what their job was and be incompetent managers all at once!
So what can we make of this experience in a way that is compassionate without losing sight of the things that were a problem and that needed to be addressed? Is there a middle path?
What I find fundamentally missing from the discourse is a reflection on our own complicity in feeding, maintaining, even most perversely, loving such a system. And I hope I am speaking to all, whether within or outside the civil service.
I can’t help but be reminded of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who in the 20th century was sentenced to the Soviet concentration camps and wrote the Gulag Archipelago about his own as well as others’ experiences in the camps. According to some, the reason that this book, globally famed to bring awareness to the horrors of Soviet tyranny, is said to have struck a chord so deep that it de-legitimized an entire system, is that Solzhenitsyn first and foremost took personal responsibility for having let such a system fester. The following excerpt is from the book 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson:
“. . he (Solzhenitsyn) asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so, how? . . . How had he missed the mark in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscious, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied?”
Similarly, how many times did we feel that we should not ruffle any feathers? How many things did we decide to sweep things under the rug? How many of us convinced not only ourselves but also others that we will all put up with it until we get what we want and it isn’t our problem anymore?
So I urge all of us to begin by taking some personal responsibility. Before anyone else, ask yourself, did I, in any way, personally, contribute to this event? If you are reading this article, it means that you can read and in English. If you understand this, you must be educated sufficiently to be able to comprehend some relatively complex ideas. You are also the type of person to read newspapers, perhaps on your smartphone. So you must be privileged, or at least not be at the absolute bottom rung of society to absolve yourself of the sort of agency where you are empowered to do something, anything.
This experience above all should be a mirror held up against our own images. It reflects our shortcomings, it taunts us with all that we aren’t and all that we could be.
Nobody has the answer to if this going to be good for us or if this is going to end up making things even worse. I would strongly caution against foretelling the future. But there is no doubt that something or some things are changing. I hope it changes for the better and I hope we all work towards ensuring that outcome.
The country is at a tipping point. The barriers such as our geography, our obscurity, our lack of integration into the global system that shielded us in the past from the worst impacts of war or economic depression do not exist anymore. But the disappearance of these barriers is also what will precisely bring us opportunities and prosperity.
It is awe-inspiring to think of the extent to which the civil service can really make a difference. All of us were witnesses to its potential as well as its eminent waste. All of us have the responsibility to demand as well as make the civil service and all of its decision-making, influence and privileges work for the people.
So let us take a leaf from Solzhenitsyn who, quoting Peterson again, “. . . took an axe to the trunk of the tree whose bitter fruits had nourished him so poorly—and whose planting he had witnessed and supported.”
I welcome further discussion.