Stepping Up Or Stepping Out?

Follow a career path across five decades and you're bound to stumble now and then. You may even lose your way a few times but don't worry about it. The best part about the journey will be the people you meet. They'll keep you company, share your burdens and help you up when you fall. If you ask, maybe they'll even give you directions.

Mine was a very long trek, across good terrain and bad. Though many names have been forgotten, I still remember the places, the circumstances in play at the time and the dynamics that drove them along. To simply say they were learning experiences would discount their relevance and the supporting roles they'd play for me later on. True, the lessons learned were important. Huge. But they were not nearly as important as understanding the forces at work behind each situation and outcome. Take career progression for example.

I doubt that anyone ever signed on to the air traffic control profession because they wanted to become the FAA Administrator. For me, I just wanted to become a controller. Then I wanted to become a good controller; respected by my peers and valued by my supervisor. That was enough for many of the folks I met along the way. They loved working airplanes, were addicted to the challenges and energized by the control room camaraderie. They were rewarded by a job well done, never expecting to be rewarded for it. They were at home in their headsets. For others, such as myself, the road to self-actualization would stretch beyond the boards...but why? What forces drove the decision to move on and was it a good one?

For some controllers I knew; embarking on the path of career progression was just a thinly veiled quest for more control. Moving up to a staff position was a power trip; fueled almost entirely by egotism and had little to do with a hope of adding value to the greater whole. It might have been tough for a selecting official to detect this kind of motivation in a candidate but to their coworkers it was as unmistakable as a radar failure. When someone of this ilk was selected, their former peers quickly lost whatever respect they might have held. In fact, the waning esteem was usually replaced by a creeping contempt. Selections such as these did nothing to slow the steady collapse of trust between controllers and management. In fact; they hastened the process. The new staff specialist could spend a couple of years in the office, all the while being mocked and/or shunned by his former teammates. Eventually he might return to the control room in a supervisory role. Payback time.

Others approached the career ladder with altruistic enthusiasm; truly believing they could make a positive difference. They worked hard at their new position and were usually able to maintain credibility in the eyes of former coworkers. This was accomplished through mutual respect but it rarely lasted.

Eventually, even the ones who stepped up for all the right reasons soon lost the belief that they could improve things. Bound by tradition and constrained by protocol, they would be drawn inexorably into the culture of mistrust between labor and management. The union's general pigeonholing of anyone outside the bargaining unit as maladroit, apathetic and technically deficient, although sometimes true, didn't help. So, the "us versus them" milieu would continue indefinitely.

But what of me? Did I climb the career ladder simply to gain a more lofty position or was my inner idealist becoming restless? Did I really think I could make a positive difference or was I too self absorbed to care about such things? I thought I knew the answers back then.

One thing is certain. Stepping up should not be seen as stepping out, selling out or copping out. Those who choose to move beyond their present position should always remember where it was and how they got there. Move on for the right reasons. If you are unsure what the right reasons are, just ask the controllers working next to you. Ask for directions. Take what they say to heart and keep it there. It'll be one small step toward sustainable change.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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