Over the past few months I have been on several mental and philosophical adventures but there is one in particular that has taken over my mind recently. I wanted to follow this train of thought all the way to the end as it has been immensely enlightening and joyous for me and I hope it can have the same results for you. My realisation has been that I simply am not one of life’s “workers”.
That does not mean that I should bum around and never work another day in my life, but more that I am not the kind of person that can just turn up and do a job by following a set of rules blindly and…you know what, just read on and you will understand what I mean.
My Story (Chasing the “perfect job”)
I’ve tried - oh how I’ve tried – to fit in to the general expectation of society for the concept of working. I’ve tried to enjoy my job, I’ve tried to believe that we’re all supposed to turn up and do the same repetitive tasks every day, and I’ve tried to accept that this is simply just how life works. I’ve tried and I’ve failed.
And for a long time that “failure” did not sit well with me. Initially I thought it must have been the type of work that I was doing. I did not enjoy the work in either a micro or a global sense - I did not enjoy the small tasks that I did every day and I had no interest in the overall outcome or success of the project, or indeed the entire organisation that employed me.
So I changed my work type. I switched roles and experienced projects from an entirely different perspective. It was exciting and fun but not for long. Pretty soon the new role lost its shine and I was back living in the void of boring work and no job satisfaction. The type of work had not been the problem after all.
“The culture!” I exclaimed as an epiphany during one of my late night philosophical debates with myself. “The culture is the problem with my work. I do not fit in there. I need to find a new place to work that has a different culture”. And so the search began again.
Shortly, I found a new job that not only had a very different culture but one where the work type was also completely different to my previous experience. Oh, and it paid more too. How could it go wrong?
But after the initial new-job-gloss wore off I realised that I was not any happier there. It turns out that the different culture I had found was not one that suited me. The new job was filled with a series of fake and impersonal interactions. No-one had conversations with other people – they networked. No-one helped someone else – they demonstrated their skills. In short, no-one cared about anyone else but themselves.
This was not the work culture I wanted.
I had been so caught up searching for any other culture that I had forgotten to look for the culture that suited me best. Instead I took the first job that was different and I paid the price. My unhappiness was back and twice as bad now.
Some more soul searching later and I concluded, having tried changing roles, work type and culture, that I would never find the perfect place to work and instead I should act like a mercenary. I decided that if I was going to be unhappy at work at least I should be paid better for it.
Once again I found a new job (this one was a change of work, change of culture, and a significant pay rise – the jackpot!) and I began with vigour, passion, and excitement. But, once again that soon turned to despair, dismay and near-depression. It turned out that the increase in pay was still not enough to compensate me for being unhappy at work.
I began to wonder if I was the problem. I had tried all these changes in my working life and none of them made me happy so it only made sense to wonder if the real problem was me. Maybe it was me who had to change.
One evening during this pontification my wife cheekily remarked to me: “you are just not one of life’s workers” and it became a running joke with us. I was never going to fit in or be happy at work and I just had to accept that. We laughed about it and I tried to move on. But I couldn’t.
Fast forward to now and I realise just how much truth was in that innocuous off-hand joke from my wife. She was 100% right. I’m not one of life’s workers.
Managers and Workers (the current system)
I believe the current structure of our working environment is predominantly split into two types of people – the managers and the workers.
The managers run the show. They own the business or at least have been given some higher level of power and control of part of the business and they wield their power as broadly as they can. They set the rules, they control the work, they dictate how things are run, and while all that is happening below them they go out and look busy.
The workers are the ones that actually do the little parcels of work that make up the whole project. The workers collate the data, write the documents, have the meetings, and do the small individual tasks that, when added together, create the whole picture.
The problem with this is that the managers tell the workers what to do and you only get to be a manager when you have “served your time” as a worker. But of course managers want to protect their jobs and as such they make it hard for a worker to progress. Opportunities are scare and often those people that befriend the current managers are promoted ahead of those that actually have the skills and knowledge that would actually make them a good leader (note: I didn’t say manager).
Sadly this just makes things worse. The wrong people get into positions of power and through a mixture of many quasi-psychological issues (fear of failure, feeling like a fraud, lack of confidence, inability to be wrong, not understanding they don’t know everything etc) these people then do whatever it takes to protect themselves. They micromanage, they blame others for problems, claim credit for the success of others, and they discourage any creative problem solving. The result is that they foster a “yes-man” work culture that workers hate rather than a supportive, creative, and innovative environment that workers love.
Does that sound familiar to you? I bet it does, because I have seen this pattern produced time and time again, in dozens of organisations. This is how the current system works. Managers set the rules and look busy and important while workers just have to shut up and do their job in the hope of being promoted some day in the future.
But I believe it can be different. I believe there is a third role that is evolving from the inefficiency of this two-role system –that third role is known as the leader.
The Leader (the new option)
A leader is an innovative thinker. A leader is not afraid to be wrong or to take a chance. A leader does not think they know everything. A leader is constantly seeking improvement and learning new things. A leader makes strong decisions and takes the initiative.
But a leader is also part dreamer and part doer. A leader is creative. A leader can have intense passion mixed with solid logic. A leader questions everything and always wants to know why/how things occur. A leader wants to solve problems. A leader wants to help others to succeed.
In short, a leader is neither a manager nor a worker. They straddle a magical area somewhere in between the two.
In managerial jobs where they have a team of people reporting to them a leader gives the team freedom to run their own projects and control their own destiny. The leader will encourage the team to grow, to explore their skills, to implement unique solutions to problems, and ultimately to discover their own innate leadership abilities. This is the difference between being a manager and being a leader.
But a leader, in the sense that I am using the word, does not always occupy a managerial position. Real leaders can be, and often are, found lurking in worker roles. They get stuck doing the repetitive and mundane tasks that are dictated to them by managers (not other leaders) because they achieve results. In these roles, a leader will do some amazing things –create innovative solutions, make critical business decisions, and identify and solve problems that others cannot even see – but only for a short period.
A leader who is stuck working for a set of managers (once again, not leaders) will quickly lose interest in their job. They will get beaten down into the mediocrity of achieving the average expectation of the worker. They will stop going “above and beyond” in their job and start delivering the bare minimum to get by. They will become under-achievers and they will hate doing so.
This is why leaders, at any level of an organisation, need to be nurtured. They need to be given freedom to run things their way, make their own decisions, and solve problems in their own way. Leaders are the innovators of our time but we need to ensure they actually have room to innovate or they will be wasted.
And guess who has the ability to be a leader? You, me, and even that weirdo sitting opposite you on the train. Ok maybe not him, but never say never right?
But seriously, everyone has the potential to become a leader. The skills exhibited by true leaders are not a luck-of-the-draw result of the genetic lottery - they are learned skills. Real leaders come from practice and experience. All of us have the basic skills that serve as the building blocks for leadership. All of us could train ourselves to become great leaders but we’ve just forgotten how.
We’ve fallen into the trap of just accepting the manager/worker view of the world. We have learned to hide our true intelligence and just accept what is given to us. We have learned to do what we are told rather than think creatively. We have learned to be workers or managers or some poor combination of both. Put simply, we have learned how to not be a real leader.
But we can change that.
My Challenge – Being a Leader at all times
This is where I am up to in my present-day thinking. I have realised that the reason I have never been happy for long in a job is because I was trying to fit myself into the worker-manager view of the world. Talk about trying to jam a square peg in a round hole.
In every job so far I have seen issues that others ignored, I have developed creative solutions to recurring “unsolvable” problems, I desired to make a positive difference, I have wanted to help others achieve more, and I have been prevented doing so at every opportunity.
It is not the fault of any particular person, but just the outcome of having to work within the rules that accompany the worker-manager system. A lot of people can just accept this and if you are one of those people than good luck to you. But for me this kind of environment just hinders my natural abilities, squashes my creativity, and I start underperforming.
But that is because I choose to. I start looking for something different in the hope that I will find a place where I fit in and that it will be different. In the mean time I have given up at the current job and I start delivering average work that scrapes me through another day.
That is not the attitude of a leader. And I want to be a leader.
So my personal challenge is to take pleasure from delivering awesome output even for the most trivial and mundane tasks. My challenge is to always deliver creative solutions even in the face of strictly-by-the-book procedures. My challenge is to always be contributing as, and demonstrating the skills of, a strong and passionate leader.
Manger, worker or leader – which role are you?
So the question begs to be asked to you, my lovely readers – which role are you? Are you a manager, a worker or a leader?
Maybe you are happy as manager or a worker. Maybe you are one those people who love the worker-manager dynamic and it suits your perfectly. Maybe, but not likely. Even if you are a highly-paid executive manager in some global business, if you are not getting an opportunity to actually be a leader then the chances are that you are not really happy at work.
And if you are reliable worker, churning out work and keeping the business running but never getting an opportunity to apply your creative problem solving skills then it is just as likely that you are not happy either.
Which leads me to the really important question – which role do you want to be?
That is a question that only you can answer and it is not as easy as it sounds. The path of worker-to-manager is safe and reliable and understood. You work hard, follow the rules and you get paid for your time. If you work hard enough (or long enough) you may even get promoted to manager.
Breaking out of that cycle is hard. You have to go against the majority of society and how we have been taught to see the working world. That is the problem with being a real leader – it is difficult, confronting, and it goes against everything that feels safe. But the rewards are worth it.
Like anything in life the decision is ultimately up to you. Now go be the best damn leader that you can be!