Every once in a while, I get hit with a revelation. Usually, this happens when I have spent a few too many hours hanging out with the shot fairy. But every now and then, I get slapped upside the head by insight without damaging my liver.
The other day, it hit as I was reading The Daily Post and came upon their question about whether you’d rather lead, follow or neither.
A few years ago, I branded myself as a second-rate loser, for all the wrong reasons.
I had not yet gotten to the point where I was acknowledging that my dream hadn’t changed since I was in elementary school. I wanted to be a writer then, and still do now. But I was caught up in the vicious cycle of mistaking fear for common sense. Everyone wants to be something like that when they’re younger, I told myself. Everyone you know wanted to be a writer or a rock star, an actress or a model. Then they grew up, got themselves a family and a day job, and starting taking reality pills.
Well, guess what? They made a movie called “Reality Bites” for a reason.
But I persisted in telling myself it was time to grow up, and tried to figure out what I wanted to be instead. I already had a successful career. I’m a second-in-command kind of gal at the office where I work. A manager and a systems guru, but not the captain of the ship.
I guess if my boss was The Skipper, I’d be Gilligan. Or one of the Gilligans, since there are a few of us. But my boss looks and acts nothing like The Skipper, and multiple Gilligans is a disturbing thought.
I started chiding myself for being content with my second-tier status. There was no real room for growth or opportunity where I was. With my background, I had two choices. I could get enough experience to try to get hired by a consulting firm and take my show on the road. Or I could apply for top dog jobs in offices like mine at other universities.
Both meant more money. One meant arseloads of travel, the other many more years of sitting behind a desk. I like travel, but not enough to want to do it every week. With the anxiety I have when I do fly, I’d be a flaming nutcase. Besides, there’s a lot I like about home. I love being near my family and my pub, and spending my evenings at home with Lee. I like sleeping in my own bed and hugging my critters whenever I want. I don’t like sitting behind a desk all the time, but that was the option that would allow me to remain at home.
So I sucked it up, put on my big girl pants, and started applying for top dog positions.
While I was doing this, I was also applying for various writer positions that looked like they’d be a pay cut but not TOO much of one. I sent out about 20 resumes. Of those, 5 were top-dog administrator jobs, the rest were various writerly jobs – tech writers, training document developers, that kind of thing. Every top dog position I applied for called me for an interview. None of the writer jobs did. I’d officially been pigeonholed.
Of the 5 jobs, I declined interviews for 2 after talking with people in the know about the work environments. I did 3 phone interviews. Two called me back.
One of them had asked variations of “how do you handle stress” at least 5 times in our phone conversation. I took that as a sign that their employees quickly morphed into work-zombies or became weeping, drunken, pill-popping spazoids to survive. I respectfully bowed out of that search. But the second one hadn’t sounded so bad. I had survived an hour on the phone with a whole conference room full of their high-level suits, and had even genuinely laughed a few times. I set up an in-person interview.
As interview day neared, I remembered I’d have to wear a suit, something I hadn’t done in years. Yeah, I dress up for work on occasion, but not suit-level dress up. I hate suits. When I am forced to wear one, I am overcome with urges to scratch myself in obscene places while swearing like a Tourette’s victim. I can feel my personality bleeding out to make room in my head for the stodgy, nose-to-the-grindstone, humorless, boring woman I think belongs in the suit instead of me. You know, the one who hasn’t gotten laid since the Reagan years, only drinks alcohol when she accidentally swallows some Listerine, and actually LIKES the “professional image” thing.
But when you have an interview, there’s nothing to be done for that either. So I went digging through my closet for the suits I’d buried out of sight a few years before. I only had 2. In the years since I’d last worn them, I’d lost some extra baggage. The way they hung on me when I tried them on, that prunefaced suit-lady actually could have fit in them with me.
This meant I’d actually have to go suit-shopping. I hate shopping. I hate suits. That’s a double-decker hate sandwich. Any excitement I had about the interview deflated like a flat tire. I started envisioning myself actually getting that top-dog job. I’d have to hire and maybe fire people and do performance reviews. I’d have meetings every friggin’ day, because that’s what top dogs do. I’d be this automaton walking around hiring and firing people and going to meetings, and doing it all in suits. I’d only be me on the weekends.
Before I knew it, I was curled up on my bed, bawling. These weren’t graceful sniffles like Pruneface Suit-Lady would cry, either. They were full-on snot-ridden sobs.
The next day, I emailed the very nice man who had contacted me and canceled my interview.
I had made the mistake of telling a few friends that I was a finalist for the job. When I didn’t mention it again, they asked about it. I turned beet-red and said I’d decided not to go for it. When they asked why, I said “because I didn’t want to buy a suit.”
At the time, I told myself I just wasn’t cut out for top dogdom. Either that, or I was a suitophobic freak, which basically means the same thing.
I’m long over it. Things have changed for the better in my workplace, and I’ve grown up enough to admit that I’ll never be happy unless I pursue my true dream, which is to write. If I had managed to fool that committee in person and convince them that I belonged in a penguin outfit, I know for sure I wouldn’t have enough time to be pursuing that dream. Being top dog requires even more hours and energy and stress than I already have to give to earning a living.
But when I saw that simple question – lead, follow, or neither – I paused to think. I flashed back to that silly sobbing moment by my closet and realized it had actually been a burst of inspiration. It was a big step towards being me.
My reaction was about so much more than the suit. I was freaking out over applying for a leadership position when I don’t want to lead. Not CAN’T lead – don’t want to. I can be a leader, but I don’t get satisfaction from the stress and the decision-making and the impact my role has on others. All that stuff gives me is a headache and a constant “whooshing” sound in my head as my creativity gets sucked away by the superstrength Hoover of responsibility that comes with top-dogdom.
But I’m also not a follower. I question rules that don’t make sense to me. Like suits. I don’t want to ride someone else’s coattails or mop up their doody.
I want to make the best choices I can make and follow my own path. I don’t want to lead others or follow them. But I am ever so happy if they want to walk beside me and share both the load and the fruits of our labor.
Sometimes there is no choice. I have to lead. In those circumstances, my motto is “if you’re gonna push me out in front to blaze the trail, you’d best be guarding my back.” Sometimes, I have to follow. I’ll do so as long as the person leading has good intentions and cares about those behind them. If I feel that’s not the case, I’ll get off the path as quickly as I can. I’m really lucky that my current boss is someone I don’t mind following when that’s what needs to be done, because I kind of like the whole having a roof and food thing.
I wasn’t a suitophobic loser. I was a suitophobic “neither.” All along, it was just that my answer to that question was “I simply want to do my own thing.”
What about you? Are you a leader, a follower, or a neither?