Last year I began having recurring dreams about identity theft. While each dream was different, the final result was identical: I would find my purse intact after having left it somewhere, only to discover that my driver’s license, credit cards, and all identifying elements were gone. Never once was my purse taken – just my unique identity. Most often I would wake in a fearful, cold sweat. This greatly agitated my dog who was already offended that I shared her king-sized bed, never mind that I was disturbing her beauty sleep. After all, she was barely getting 18 hours a day as it was.
At the time, I was a public sector leader feeling increasingly frustrated under executive leadership that was control freaky, narcissistic, and self-serving. Kind of like my dog actually. The supporting bureaucracy was a straightjacket of nonsensical rules, and my staff and I were frequently forced into pretzel-like administrative contortions to overcome obstacles, along with having to counter the pervasive fear that the executives ‘wouldn’t like that’.
Almost every day I was blocked, advised to shut up and do what I was told, and my considerable knowledge and experience went unused and unacknowledged. I was still accountable for results of course. But certainly nobody cared that our numerous roadblocks prevented us from being effective and efficient enough to actually attain those results. If anyone did care, they were unable or unwilling to help. I felt invisible, voiceless, and like a thoroughbred being kept on the pony ride.
I became depressed. Dreading Mondays, I prayed my mental health would remain intact until Friday. On weekends, my energy was low and minor issues often left me close to tears. As a stress eater, I gained forty pounds in one year. Occasionally, my hopelessness caused me to go home early and crawl into bed with a box of comfort cookies. Adding insult to injury, my dog insisted I share these treats with her. Intellectually, I knew the environment was damaging, but emotionally I resisted accepting I was in a situation so foreign to my skills, abilities and talents. Again.
In reviewing my career, it became starkly evident that at virtually every organization where I had worked, public or private, I felt like a stranger, an outcast, even a rebel (albeit a reluctant one). I knew I was smart, experienced, and motivated, among other wonderful things. In short, I was everything my dog believed I was. So if all that was true, why were employers constantly blocking me? Sure, they talked a good line: “We hired you because you’re so capable and talented!” They simply wouldn’t allow me to harness those skills in their service.
Which brings me back to my recurring dreams. Eventually, I realized they symbolized my career. The shell of me went to work (my purse), but the real me – my talents, abilities, and drive (the contents of my purse) – were being stolen every day. At the very least, I wasn’t permitted to access them.
After three decades of working (I must be a slow learner), I finally recognized I am an intrapreneur, a creative employee that questions rules and ‘the way things are done around here’, advancing avant-garde ideas and approaches. Unfortunately, intrapreneurs often make leaders uncomfortable because we don’t ‘go along to get along’. We highlight what could be better, different, revolutionary. But such things require change, and humans are notoriously resistant to anything that even hints at threatening the status quo. My reward for naïve attempts to innovate has often been silence or exclusion. Sort of like my dog when I skip her morning walk. This is such an affront to her natural order of things that I am shunned in favor of my husband for hours.
Fortunately, the more I talked to friends, colleagues, and other leaders, the more I realized many people felt the same way. A quick internet search made me even happier as I clearly wasn’t the lone wolf I thought I was (see links below). There actually is a way for intrapreneurs to survive and thrive in organizational life! I hope you will join this ongoing conversation to share ideas on exactly how to do that. At the very least, your involvement will keep me writing this blog, providing me with an ongoing excuse to skip dog grooming. My dog will therefore benefit from extra beauty sleep and will reward me with another inch of bed space despite my nocturnal disturbances. I can always dream…