Done with Climbing the Leadership Ladder? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I need your professional advice on career goals or growth.

I worked in the construction industry for 25 years, starting out as an electrician and moving up to a field manager. I essentially went from pulling wiring through conduit to managing the entire field operation on very large, multi-million-dollar commercial and industrial projects. During this time I also was in the US Army National Guard and was called to active duty in 2002. I was wounded in combat and spent the next three years in and out of hospitals and physical therapy.

When I went back to work, I had a hard time with the physical aspects of my job. I decided to use my VA benefits and found a new job with the federal government as an engineering technician. I was technically still in the field, but now I was just making sure others did what they were contracted to do. It was easier work, fewer hours, and a much more secure future. I have done government work now in various roles for 15 years and have moved up the GS ladder in pay and responsibility.

The government is always pushing for individual and leadership development—“grow up, not down” kind of stuff. To be honest, I’m happy where I am. I don’t want more responsibility and I don’t really want to be a supervisor any longer. When I have said this to my current boss and to some past bosses, they have all asked me why I don’t just go back to the private sector if I feel that way. I don’t understand this, because the growth and development situation was essentially the same in the private sector.

Here’s my question: am I wrong? Should I grow even though I’ll be miserable? I know I won’t be the best I can be. I’m a very good leader but not a good manager. I can inspire others and motivate them to be part of the team, to be themselves, and to contribute all they can in their way. I have an open, creative, teaching mind but I hate the daily grind of supervising people, the miasma of mundane paperwork and budgets, and the sand in my eyes at the end of a long day of computer work.

I have 10 years left before retiring to just work when I want to work, so should I give the government 10 good years doing what I want or should I give them 10 years doing what they want? I’m at the most common rank in the management levels of government service. I have been more senior and could easily keep going on up, but I’d rather just take it easy and slack off on growing and doing.

I know it sounds like I don’t care, but that isn’t it. I just really like the way the job is at this level. Am I wrong in wanting this?

Done Pushing


Dear Done Pushing,

No. Just No.

Thoughts and feelings are what they are and simply can’t be wrong. The only thing you can do that’s wrong is take an action you may regret without having carefully consulted your thoughts and feelings.

I tried to shorten your letter but I wanted our readers to get the whole picture. It seems to me that you have done more than your duty to your government by anyone’s standards. You’ve earned the right to create your life exactly the way you want it to be. And just who, I ask, is the arbiter of what anyone has earned or deserves? It also sounds like you do your job well and are satisfied with the compensation, so it is a fair exchange.

Long ago I worked with an opera singer who was immensely gifted and had put in long hours to develop her natural talent. She was on the brink of stardom when she realized that the life and career of an opera star wasn’t what she wanted. She was extremely religious and tortured herself with the thought that because God gave her the gift of an extraordinary voice, she was obligated to use it. At the time, I was specializing in working with creative geniuses, many with the overwhelming problem of having been born with multiple gifts. This includes the singer, who was also good at many other things. So the notion that you are obligated to develop and use your gifts just doesn’t compute when you have entirely too many. It took seeing the world through the eyes of these clients for me to realize a principle that I lean on to this day:

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

And that goes for everyone. Including you.

In the singer’s case, she felt beholden to God. In your case, you feel somehow beholden to your government. I can’t speak for God, obviously, but I will say that his ways are inscrutable and mysterious, so you have to listen to your inner voice and your heart. I say the only debts you owe are to yourself and the people you have made promises to.  It doesn’t sound like you are breaking any promises you made to your employer. And you would not be putting your integrity at risk for failing to accept a promotion.

Let’s face it—growth requires discomfort. Some people love being in a constant state of growth and relish the challenge. Others don’t. You might take a few years off to rest and then get bored and change your mind. Or you might not. It is not for anyone else to judge your choices; not that they won’t (ha ha), but it really makes no material difference to you. You can take the pushy advice lightly, say thank you, and change the subject. No use burning bridges, so keep your options open.

The most miserable, unhappy people I have worked with were almost all in a state where they had created a life that others wanted for them, not one they wanted for themselves. And the higher you go, the harder it is to undo those choices.

So no. You aren’t wrong. You get one life, my friend. Are you going to live it the way you want, or the way others want?

I hope this is helpful.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

Leave a Reply