Leading Yourself By Fighting Through Assumed Constraints

I work in a federal agency that has seen budget cut every consecutive fiscal year since 2010 despite a rising work load. When I came to my federal agency in 2009, we had well over 100,000 employees. Today we barely have 80,000 workers. Nearly half of this workforce consists of baby boomers, of whom 33% could walk out the door today and retire.

This fiscal year, my office was reorganized, my division eliminated and I was thrust into a team of colleagues in different parts of the country I had never worked with before. On top of that, I lost my supervisor to a realignment and my office director went on extended medical leave.

All in all, since coming to my current federal employer, I have experienced six different front-line managers, five senior executives and five reorganizations. My current tasks do not resemble the responsibilities of the job description in the job announcement that attracted me to my position in the first place. Uncertainty is so acute in my day-to-day interactions that it has become the new normal.

The hard lesson I have learned through this constant change, volatility and ambiguity is the necessity of having to lead yourself in the federal swamp as the administrative state is slowly but surely dismembered.

In the sports world we call it playing against yourself. Practicing your craft by your lonesome self when your teammates want to party. Keeping your concentration during a game where you are beating the other team mercilessly or when you know you are going to lose the game so badly you try to win the next inning, quarter or play.

Unless you work in the defense or security sectors of the federal space, you have probably felt the constant churn of change and turmoil that has embraced a public service industry that use to be an honorable profession but is now the butt of some political jokes.

Fortunately, Susan Fowler of the Ken Blanchard Companies, a leadership development firm, has some helpful advice for feds who are drowning in a tsunami of disruption and disengagement.

She encourages public servants to stay grounded in your personal power. She reminds us that proactively seeking what is good for us is good for our colleagues and customers.

She predicts that the federal government haters will soon find out that the consistent running down of fed govies undermines the single greatest predictor of organizational success– the proactive behavior of individual contributors.

Erik Wahl, the author of the book “Unchain the Elephant: Reframe Your Thinking to Unleash Your Potential,” suggest that these assumed constraints lead to elephant thinking.

Elephant thinking comes from the inhumane way baby elephants are indoctrinated into the circus. At an early age, they are tethered to a pole in the ground. After unsuccessfully trying to break away from this bondage after many attempts, they just give up and accept their current reality.

Elephant thinking incarcerates us in the workplace with invisible walls that keep us from our self-leader potential. We mistake these challenges as problems instead of opportunities. Oftentimes we project these negative thoughts on others and circumstances beyond our control.

The good news is self-leadership can be taught by the instructor in you. Sometimes you have to love the one you are with; even if that person is yourself.

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