Lead, Follow, Neither? Reflections of a Suitophobic Freak

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.

Anyway …

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.

Well, shit.

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?

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About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Creativity, Goal-Setting, Personal Development Mumbo-Jumbo Stuff, Slices O' Life, Uncategorized, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Lead, Follow, Neither? Reflections of a Suitophobic Freak

  1. l'empress says:

    I’m neither a leader nor a follower; I do (or did) what the organization needs at the time. There really is no room for me in business today, because I don’t fit into pigeonholes.

    But I do love suits; they were the most comfortable outfits for me. I’m short, so I love wearing an outfit that doesn’t cut me in half in the middle. Depending on the office — or the weather — slacks were appropriate, and to me a three-piece suit was a jacket with both a matching skirt and a matching pair of trousers. I could choose my colors (even a pink plaid with a dark stripe, that had been my mother’s).

    It must be part of me now; I look for a blouse and shorts that make a co-ordinated outfit…

  2. hawleywood40 says:

    I always wished I could be more like you in that respect, l’empress – worklife would be much easier for me if I actually liked office attire! The good thing about ending up moving into the systems development world has been that I get more slack than when my role was running aspects of the office itself. Now that the “customers” I deal with are more staff than students or parents, I can get away with khakis most of the time and as dumb as that is it makes me feel better. Either that, or maybe I should have gotten a skill set that lent itself to earning a good living in jeans : ). My pretty sure my own retirement wardrobes is gonna be all jeans, sweats and Steelers shirts!

  3. Amy Isaman says:

    Leader – definitely a leader. Even if I don’t want to have any thing AT ALL to do with planning an event, somehow I end up in charge and people just sort of expect it of me. This is fine in the classroom or when I’m coaching, but I had to learn to tell friends that I’d love to do something but I won’t plan it anymore. They still look at me like I’ve lost it. I guess I’m the default in charge person which, I suppose, is the same as leader. Sometimes this is great, sometimes not so much. As for the suits, if you hate ’em become a teacher. If I wear anything but khaki’s or capris to work, people ask me what I’m all dressed up for! I would love to wear a suit occasionally without getting looked at like a grew a third arm. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone at my high school in a full blown suit. Ties or skirts? Yes. Suits? Hell no.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      So funny that you mention teaching Amy – I’ve thought about that as an option over the years – not just to avoid the suits lol – but because even though I don’t like “leading” or “managing” I love teaching and helping. The only thing that’s held me back is going back to school for the teaching credentials, which would mean sacrificing the writing time – oh, and not being able to figure out how I’d survive the internship requirement here which would mean giving up my job. Like you, I’m often the one friends end up turning to to plan and coordinate. I’ve bowed out of that role more often than not over the years notice that we have many fewer organized get-togethers now : ).

  4. Marcia says:

    We could almost be twins, Pam, with regard to this post. I like seeing other women look good in suits, butt o have to wear one to work everyday? No, thanks. Like you, I don’t mind leading as long as authority accompanies responsibitlity. Without that combo, your not really a leader. That was my situation when I was working. Small company made for huge responsibility but the boss was a micro-manager and gave none of us the authority to make decisions and really lead. I haven’t had good experiences being a follower since I hadn’t had good leaders to follow. I’m my own boss now with my writing and my sports gear website. I like that much better…so I guess I’m a neither, like you. So glad you found where you’re comfortable…being the responsible middle management and the boss of your writing career…Win-Win!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      You’re right Marcia – I poke fun at the image in this post, but a woman who looks like she’s herself in her suit – comfortable and at ease, can look great. I just could never master the image since I always felt off : ). And having to lead without power is awful. The year before I moved to the systems side of things I was managing and had a decent-sized staff – a staff for which I had to enforce rules that weren’t mine and for whom I had no pay increases to offer for good performance. I was a flaming stressball and so glad to move into something different! It can take a while to figure out the combo that lets you earn a living AND writing, but I feel like I’m finally getting the formula down : ).

  5. Lafemmeroar says:

    This post made me laugh. What’s your shot fairy’s name? Mine is usually called Jack Daniels 🙂
    Like you I want to do my own thing as well.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      OMG – if mine was Jack Daniels he would kill me! That’s my bf’s shot of choice during stressful-for-him footballs games though. Mine are usually something with one of the flavored vodkas – the sweet tea one is one of my current faves!

  6. starzyia says:

    I’m a leader, with a following of one, me! I guess I’m not a leader, I’m a loner. But I feel like a leader.
    I don’t own a suit and hope I never will own a suit.
    Good on you for taking the path in life that you want and need to take.

  7. akamonsoon says:

    Great post Pam. And good for you for following your gut on this one. I’m sure it had more to do with just suit shopping. I am a lot like you in the sense that I’m not a leader or a follower either. Didn’t realize that until reading this.

    “But I am ever so happy if they want to walk beside me and share both the load and the fruits of our labor.” –Loved this.

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