On Life and Work

By Ken Quek
Apropos of nothing, I want to share some of the thoughts that I went through while in HQ.  I know that sometimes (often?) there is a feeling of disillusionment when we think that we are only working for someone else’s pleasure and not necessarily for what is ‘best for our children, best for Singapore.’

I want to say that as I matured in a HQ environment, I’ve learnt to pull my own ego back whenever these thoughts come around. Almost always, the genesis of such feelings is because WE THINK WE ARE RIGHT.

I hope I do not sound harsh. If you feel such disillusionment, I would first like to pat you on the back. It tells me that you are passionate about education. Passionate about doing the right things, instead of only doing things right.

But hear me out.
We do not always know what’s right. Nor are we going to be right all the time.
Everyone uses his/her own personal judgement to make their decisions.

Before we even come to that, I’d like to ask you. What sort of boss do you THINK you would like?
(a) A boss who follows the instructions of his/her superiors all the time.
(b) A boss who does what he/she thinks is right all the time.

I believe many would choose (b).
I would as well. But I remember a time not too long ago when I was working on a project and I did not entirely agree with my boss (Boss I). When the project went up to the bigger boss (Boss II), I was happy to hear comments that, to me, sounded like many things would be changed.

As I recall, when we went back to the office after that meeting in which I thought ‘many things would be changed’, the response from Boss I was “That went well. We just need to make a few tweaks to our plan and we should be good to go!”

I was floored!  And so were a few others with me.  In private, we questioned just what the hell Boss I was doing.  It seems that we all heard something vastly different from what he had heard!
We were upset, angry, frustrated that we didn’t have the same ideas. Most of all, we were worried that what we were doing would be thrown into the trash by Boss II and we’d have to start from scratch all over again.

I’m sure that back then we were wishing that we had a boss that could follow instructions.
We wanted a type (a) boss.

Do you know what Boss I was doing?
He was exercising his own professional judgement.
He heard the same things we did. But decided to see how best those comments could mesh with his own vision of what the project was to be about.  He was a type (b) boss.

It took me a long time to realise this.  I’m glad that I was never ostracised despite me always wearing my heart on my sleeve on how I sometimes disagreed with Boss I’s decisions.

I’ve realised that leadership is a lonely role.  That you have to balance both expectations from above and below and mesh them with your own vision of how things should be.  And in a field like ours, you almost never know if you were right.

It takes courage and a strong will to go your own way in the face of opposition from your superiors and subordinates.  It takes skill and wisdom to know HOW to go your own way without being condemned by both superiors and subordinates.

It is a balancing act.
Recognising this has made me kinder to bosses. They are people too. And their job isn’t easy at all.

I also recognise that the source of my frustrations, besides my passion for education, stems from an implicit assumption that I KNOW WHAT’S BEST.

That, is an amazingly egotistical thought.  In the face of so many others who have been in the industry for so many years and faced so many different situations and challenges in education, I thought I was better than them, smarter than them, more moral than them.

That is why, when they did something I disagreed with, I immediately responded with a “What?! That’s ridiculous!”, instead of a “What does he see that I don’t?”

From here on, read my previous post dated 9th Sept on cynicism.

I’m not saying that we should douse the fire that burns so strongly in us on the importance of education and the work that we are doing. God forbid that that happens.

But the words ‘be positive’ ring very true if we are to continue in education.
First of all though, I think I have to be humble.

God bless.

2 thoughts on “On Life and Work

  1. Great work! Good reminder that we are egoistic too. Not too long ago, I was championing that after the disagreement and persuasions and discussions with one boss, one still have to carry out his/her instructions. That I still hold true, ’cause I know he/she bears the responsibilities. I’m also acutely aware that he/she had seen more than I had to be in that position to command me. So I am still exercising leadership and not plotting mutiny. This is something all of us must bear in mind, regardless of where we are.

    What irks me most are those (a) who are there because of their seniority (having born decades before me) and did not bother earn our respect and (b) those unfortunately, pales in comparison to the predecessor. The (b) situation is unfortunate I must say and I am more forgiving in this case.

    Your message reminded me of what I had warned myself before not to fall into. Thanks pal!

  2. Superlike! (if there’s such a button)
    Thanks for the honesty and for sharing your thoughts re Boss I and Boss II. Provided me with fresh insights. =)
    not forgetting a touch of nostalgia!

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