“Doing” and “Being” a Leader: Not the Same Thing

George, one of the best trainers in our organization, often begins his classes with a very interesting introduction – He calls it 5-7-10. He asks participants in our leadership classes to think back to where they were when they were 5 years old, where they were and what they were doing 7 years ago, and what they want to be in 10 years. The participants are then invited to greet each other and have a conversation around the three topics.  Bringing the group together in a circle, George asks them what they have learned from talking to their new-found partners in the class.

The results are always exciting.

Although all three questions are important, the “what do you want to be in 10 years” has the most to do with leadership. For the first question we discover the diversity and the anchors for the people in the class; the fundamental connection between people of family, of growth, and of possibility. The second question reveals generational differences, as people often discover that some in the class were in school, some in their mid-level positions, and some were doing something entirely unrelated to their current positions (some examples involve everything from Peace Corps worker to Traveling vagabond).

The third question is the key, and the trick is in the language. We ask “what do you want to ‘be’ in ten years.” We often receive replies of “Retired,” “President of the Company,” even “doing the same thing, but less of it to make more time for family.” This is when George might reflect the question again, emphasizing the “be.” George will often rephrase the answers with the idea “that is what you want to do…what do you want to be?”

Early in the class few understand the distinction. One woman in a class a few weeks ago did. She saw where George was going and said, “In ten years, I want to be happy with the choices I have made about my work and my life, plus the choices I am faced with going forward.” She understood that “doing” is what people see, “being” is what people feel.

This person understood the difference between “doing” leadership and “being” a leader.  The “doing” is sometimes more about management and process than leadership. When we are “doing” we are moving from Manager to Director to Supervisor and up the chain. We are “doing” our job when we check the process, insure quality, make sure our people are skipping to work and happy to be there.

But there is a flip side to the leadership coin. We are taught what to do as leaders, but we have to learn how to be good leaders. “Being” involves understanding yourself, your context, and what you want your future to “be.” “Being” a leader involves being fully present with a person, understanding their needs and truly listening to their concerns. A leader in “being” is one who puts away their smart phone, turns away from the computer, focuses on the other person in the office and makes “being” with them the most important priority in the moment.

Those who operate in the presence of great leaders will often reflect that when you talk with them they make you feel as if there was no one else in the room. Historians comment that Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton, and even Winston Churchill have this quality. Their eye contact, body language, skills and perspective combine to fully “be” with the person they are with – regardless of external pressures. They are so present with that person, the person with them feels valued and listened to. This is often alarming to those with them for the first time, and then relished by those who have the privilege of working with them on a daily basis.

Thus, when George asks his 5-7-10 questions, it is more than an icebreaker between people. It serves to break down the barriers people have built from their experience of “doing” leadership and helps them to start thinking about how to “be” better leaders. We must ask ourselves – when people come in our office are we too engaged with email or projects to “be” with them? Are we too busy to “be” with our families? Are we too focused on “doing” leadership than on “being” a good leader?

As a leader, are you more about “doing” or more about “being?” 

Where will you “be” in 10 years?

6 thoughts on ““Doing” and “Being” a Leader: Not the Same Thing

  1. Clemson:

    I remember one of the leadership points in “The Fish” that is about your point here. The point is “Be There”, which in the movie was about your mental state when you report to work.

    In leadership, I have seen many leaders who were never “there” when they were conversing with other is their work environment. Those that “took the time” with me are those who made the lasting impression and whose leadership I emulated.

    In my Navy career and working in secondary education, I “did” leadership everyday, modeling the characteristics, teaching the concepts and mentoring/counseling other. However, when I was with someone under my charge in a personal, one-on-one interaction that required my empathy, my listening, my understanding of and “seeing” what they were saying, I was “there” with them. I was attempting to “get inside” them to obtain a better understanding of their communication and their life. This part is when I felt like I was making a difference.

    Doing leadership is progressing. Being There leadership is a journey, a vision of leadership, a purpose that provides intrinsic rewards.

    Thank you for the article.

  2. I couldnt agree more strongly with Clemson’s post. I’d also add – how have we impacted their journey? How have we as leader’s made a mark on their life? For however briefly, the leaders ability to nudge, guide, direct, empower, push, support and applaud those leaders we get the privilege to build is inspirational and a down right awesome feeling. “Being” a leader is addictive. “Being” a part of others lives in a positive way is why investing in people will pay dividends for a lifetime. Thanks Clemson!

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