I have a story from my days as a second secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) which to this day (9 years later) I have been unable to forget or shake off.
With my most recent post #metoo, touching on the subject of power, this story to me illustrates very well, the choices we have when we have a certain amount of power and how we can either choose to do good or the opposite.
It must have been my second or third week on the job back in January or February 2006. In my in-tray on my desk, my secretary placed a small pile of documents stapled together with a sticky-note with the word URGENT written in red by my director. I went through the documents and I made a decision which I felt, with the very little that I knew at the time, was the best way forward. There was a ministerial meeting happening in a foreign country within a matter of days. MFA’s Principal Secretary felt that even if it was short notice it was something that the relevant minister would probably consider attending (a deduction I made based on her comments on the invitation letter). The fax number of the minister who was to be informed was written on one of the few sticky notes in the pile. This was not rocket science. Given that I understood the urgency I proceeded to write a letter to the said minister, outlining the key points from all the documents and proceeded to send the fax – all within 30 minutes of having had my in-tray graced with this far-from-exciting challenge.
If I had thought that the ‘completed’ noise the fax machine does when it has sent something was going to be the last I heard of this little task, I was gravely mistaken. And yes, I did think that and yes, I was mistaken. This little scenario had happened towards the end of a business day. I came to work the next morning and to my shock, I was informed that I was at the center of a diplomatic situation. Apparently, second secretaries do not write to ministers directly. It is against protocol. The head of my division was beside himself. He wasn’t rude or abusive to me or anything but I understood perfectly that what I had done was a GIGANTIC no-no. I calmly asked what I had to do to fix it. Should I write an apology letter? Should I write an explanatory note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself? It turned out I didn’t have to do any of that. MFA’s Principal Secretary was going to handle it. I also understood right there and then that having pissed off my Director and PS within a few weeks on the job, I was going to have to prove my worth within the walls of Maison Queau de Quinssy and that this little incident was going to mark me in some way. I also understood that this was a lesson. I had made a mistake which taught me the importance of protocol and how it needs to be respected.
Done? Not quite.
Fast forward two years later (Yes, TWO years later).
The working visit of the head of an organisation I was the desk officer for meant that I had to be present in all his formal meetings and one of them was actually a meeting with the same minister from the incident a couple of years prior. The meeting took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the appropriate time, I went by the entrance of building, ready to meet the dignitaries upon their arrival. The minister came, shook my hand and noted that he had never seen me before. (Correct. We had actually never crossed paths in those two years that I had been employed by MFA). He asked me what my name was. I told him and his face changed. ‘Oh, that same Marie-France who inappropriately writes to ministers?’ he asked me. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. He waited for me to answer. My heart had sunk instantly. My legs had gone all wobbly. ‘Yes, that’s me,’ I mumbled. He is definitely one of the very few people I can say I hated instantly. He crushed me, right then and there for no reason – none. What I had done two years earlier, required to be dealt with, I will never argue that fact, but a lifetime sentence? I don’t think so.
For the entire 30 minutes that I was in his presence after that, I kept my head down, managing just enough focus to be able to do what my job entailed, but I tell you, I can count on one hand the amount of times in my life I had felt that small.
Thankfully that was the last time I crossed paths with him.
I worked for a private company a couple of years later and one day, my boss there called me into his office and gave a me a cheque amounting with a six-digit figure to go and give to this minister for a favour. I refused. I used the fact that I was heavily pregnant to get out of it. But, go-figure. The man with protocol principles turned out to be a corrupt leech with an ego he was far too small to handle.
While he is no longer a minister, the very few times I come across his face, I am taken back to that afternoon and each time I fail to comprehend why he had to treat me that way and how in that exact moment he could have made a decision which would have had the adverse effect on me. But, no. He thought his power was supreme and it would never end.
In the end he taught me two lessons. The first one I mention earlier in this blog about the importance of protocol. The second one is this; power is a phase. One minute you have it and the next it’s in someone else’s hand. What you do with it when you have it pretty much dictates how others would use theirs for you or against you. Honestly? As far as I can see, it seems like a pretty easy choice to make.