I’m Not a Number, I Am a Government Manager


Organizational life can be overwhelming.  The sheer volume of work to be done, not to mention the extraordinarily complex and frustrating political dynamics, often leaving me wondering whether it’s all worth it.  It can also leave me feeling the need to sit in a quiet, darkened room with no sensory input to get caught up on taking slow, deep, relaxing breaths.  That’s my plan for this weekend.  I’m going sit still, grill, and reflect on my work.  So far, I’ve focused on the funny stuff.  In the brief moments I take a break from the high-pace and walk for a few steps, I often get a glimpse of the humor that arises whenever people are locked in a building together.  I offer the following anecdotes with affection for my workplace. The bitter stuff may be included a future post.

I am a member of my agency’s Leadership Team, which in our organization is short-handed as “L.T.”  I’ve been on the L.T. for several years, but recently, I, along with many of my colleagues were disinvited to the weekly L.T. Meeting.  We were told that, for a while, the only people meeting on Tuesday mornings would be the “L.T. 8,” a subset composed of the eight highest-ranking members of the team.  I had no objection.  Freeing up an hour and a half on Tuesday mornings was a gift.  A few weeks later, however, I received word that the group was being expanded to the “L.T. 11.”  Because my boss was sharing this information with me, I made the assumption that I was being invited back into the room.  I was mistaken.  I’m not sure who the extra three invitees were, but I learned that I was not in the top ten.  Or eleven, to be specific.  Yesterday, my boss provided yet another update: there are now officially three different L.T.s that may be convened for different purposes: LT8, LT11, and LT23.  I’m fairly confident that I am a member of the LT23, but I have not received any certificate, flowers, or even a meeting notice.  Until I get my official orders, I will keep myself occupied on Tuesday mornings by writing memos suggesting that each of us be assigned an official number, like the characters in the 1967 BBC cult classic TV series The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan played “Number 6” and searched for freedom in a dystopian prison nightmare where all the antagonists were known only by numbers.  Or we could emulate the nine members of the nu-metal band Slipknot and wear masks and numbered jumpsuits to disguise our identity.  The possibilities are innumerable.  Get it.

On one of those days when I wasn’t in an LT23 meeting, I had spent the bulk of the morning listening to a fellow manager’s concerns and complaints.  Let’s call him Bob.  Bob trusts me enough to confide his consternation and push me to come up with solutions, or at least a next step, but, despite it being my job, I usually feel that I’ve been no help at all, bereft of ideas to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges that come with politics and regulation.  As much as I feel inept in my attempts to assist, I keep going back to offer a sympathetic ear to the daily litany of demands and disappointments.  I’ve likened it to an unhealthy marriage: he sometimes treats me badly, but I love him. After walking away from my daily dose of Bob, I headed towards my office to hide.  When I turned the corner, I overheard some other workplace drama unfolding nearby. I heard just enough to recognize that I wanted no part of it. I was all full up on drama, so I announced to a colleague sitting in a cubicle outside my office, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” and walked inside to escape it all.  I’m told it’s an old Polish proverb, and I love it.  She laughed at my pronouncement.  A moment later, though, she appeared in my doorway, smiled at me kindly and said, “You know, Bob is kinda your monkey.”  Now it was my turn to laugh, heartily.  A little shift in perspective can be a funny thing.

A different day, one in which I had a break from Bob, I attended a meeting to discuss a technology project in which one of my staff was an essential player.  She was struggling to get the project team members fully engaged in the work.  I was there to provide moral support, at least.  I didn’t know how hard I would be able to push the team members, as I didn’t know them well.  They work in a financial unit and tend to keep to themselves, quietly entering data and crunching numbers.  Waiting in the hallway for the meeting room to clear out, I smiled and said hello to a young woman who was part of the number-crunching team.  She barely made eye contact, smiled shyly, and quickly looked down.  I assumed she was introverted, and I respect that. She came across as gentle, even fragile, so I didn’t want to push her out of her comfort zone.  As I’ve said before, I don’t like to inconvenience people, even emotionally.  We entered the room and took seats around the table, when another manager who knew me inquired how my book sales were going. I reported they continue at a glacial pace, which is my go-to – and accurate – joke to explain my failure to show up the New York Times bestseller list.  Someone else asked what I had written a book about. I said I had two: one about running, and the other about my love for heavy metal music.  A third voice spoke up saying the phrase I hear most often when my second book’s subject matter is revealed: “I never pictured you as a heavy metal fan.”  Yes, I know. I’m the mild-mannered, middle-aged guy who looks like he might be into “soft rock.”  Ugh.  Sometimes people say, “Do you mean, like, Van Halen?”  To that, I groan quietly under my breath and have an inner debate about whether to explain Van Halen’s place in the rock & roll canon, how they really aren’t a metal band, and that I enjoy bands such as Amon Amarth and Children of Bodom.  This time, though, I was shocked by the question I actually got.  The sweet, gentle, quiet, shy number-cruncher looked me in the eye and said, with no trace of irony, “Do you mean, like, Scandinavian Death Metal?”  Why, yes, yes, I do!  I made a new friend, a new metal sister, which is especially delightful as she’s another person who no one ever pictured as a metal fan.

These recollections are encouraging.  I work with a lot of great people who share my interests and, more importantly, make me smile and laugh.  Even Bob makes me laugh.  I’ll take what I can get.  Well, I really should get back to that quiet, dark room.  Breathe in, breathe out.


4 thoughts on “I’m Not a Number, I Am a Government Manager

  1. This is an interesting conundrum: Whether to be happy at missing yet another meeting, or a bit put out because now you may not know what is being discussed/decided. My observation of the dynamics of that agency was that meetings, especially with higher level managers, was the currency of status–to be included showed everyone else how essential your input was into decision making. But it was a false currency because the people who actually did the work, the people upon whom everything relied, were never in the meetings.

    • Mind. Blown. Thanks for this very thoughtful – and insightful – comment. I guess, as one of the most (cringe) senior members of the management cadre at my agency, I’ve gotten over the desperate need to be part of every meeting, but I confess there is a twinge every time I learn of something I wasn’t invited to be a part of. So much to reflect on.

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