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

The following post is from Leading Effectively, a blog maintained by the Center for Creative Leadership – and worth a quick read.

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?

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

  1. Daniel M says:

    I feel like this article and the two videos are kind of conveying the same thing. Basically people get caught up in the act of “doing” leadership that we forget that the most beneficial moments are when we are “being” a good leader. It’s the act of experiencing it and having fun with it that really causes the connections and progress to take place. That’s why the kids in the other video could be compared to the most brilliant scientists: they lack the projects and technology that cloud our lives and sometimes prevent us from being ourselves. They’re free to lead.

    • Miles Rachner says:

      I agree with Daniel that you cannot forget the “being” aspect of leadership while in the act of “doing”. A good leader must be able to still focus on doing and getting the job done, but they can never forget about the people which takes being a good leader so people are still happy because many problems can come with unhappiness and discontent.

  2. Lauren Nance says:

    I think “doing” what a leader does and actually “being” leader goes right along with our power and influence lesson we had in class Tuesday. The “do” part that George described in this article reminded me of a leader who just wants power and to see how far he can get in his role as a leader. To me, this is the sort of person who wants to get promotions and likes the attention that comes along with his job. It isn’t about people as much as it is position. “Being” a leader is on the influencing side of this spectrum. They are the leaders who are actually motivating and inspiring their followers to do something great. They don’t get caught up in the fame or money that may go along with their jobs. Like the article said, these leaders can make someone feel like they are a priority to them.

  3. Jacob Clore says:

    It is definitely a lot easier to “do” leadership than to “be” a good leader. We can always scrutinize what we are doing rather quickly but a leader must slow down and actually think about how they are being a good leader. The article points something interesting; out technology can actually distract us from being leaders. There are always limits to technology; it keeps us from being with people and being effective leaders. As a leader, I strive to always “be” but it is so easy to just “do” leadership. Talking face to face with people and representing what it actually means to be a leader can be very challenging. In ten years, I hope to be a successful and honest journalist and broadcaster.

  4. Courtney McPherson says:

    I would say I am more of a doing leader than being leader, seeing as that I am always focused on the task at hand as opposed to really focusing on the relationship I have with that person. In ten year I want to be a professional engineer, with a family, and a happy life, and want to look back and say I improved my leadership skills by being more focused on the relationship aspect. The last part of that idea isn’t about doing but being, I want to “be” that kind of person in the future! That would be my answer to the question!

  5. Riley St. Pierre says:

    I think that I am more of a being leader. I am definitely a doing leader but sometimes I don’t always go out and “show” my leadership. It all depends on the situation but I definitely think I have been blessed with natural leadership skills therefore when I “do” act as a leader it isn’t forced and it is just me desiring to do certain things and I’m acting on my leadership impulse. In ten years I hope that I can look back at the past ten years and see my growth in knowledge, wisdom, faith, and leadership. I don’t always like to look that far into the future because things can change drastically but in my narrow mind I hope that in ten years I have a family and a job where I can change people’s lives.

  6. emmahdouglas says:

    I think that I am much more of a “doing” leader than a “being” leader. I tend to focus on the upcoming tasks and completing things on my list before I focus on building relationships with people. I believe that I really need to work on becoming more of a “being” leader, because, in my opinion, “being” leaders are more successful in the long run. By becoming more of a “being” leader, I will be more on the influencing side of leadership, which is the much more positive side.

  7. Lindsay DeMers says:

    “Doing” leadership is my thing. I like to get things done, I like tangible progress, I like accomplishing and reaching goals. I want something to work towards to give my life purpose and guidance, but I guess I should try working on being a “being” leader, so I’ll try out meditating on myself and being a better listener. And in ten years I want to be curious, excited, and notorious.

  8. Kristen Fisher says:

    I definitely believe “doing” leadership is my thing. Achiever and responsibility are both two of my strengths, which contribute to be wanting to get things done. I like to do work, get it done, and do it right. I like to lead others to do the same. I also feel like “being” a leader is like leading my example. I strive to do it, I want to be more of an example to others, but sometimes I find this harder than it is to “do” things. In 10 years, I want to be a genetic counselor. I want to make a difference in others lives by “being” a leader.” I want to be happy, and spread my happiness to others.

  9. Anna Lehman says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. As a leader I would like to believe that I am more “being”. However as leaders I feel that we all get caught up on the “doing” and we sometimes push the “being” to the side. One of my favorite parts about this article is when they said that we are taught what to do as leaders, but we learn how to be good leaders. I think this really emphasizes that through experience we all become better. I want to be happy, and loved. What is so special about “doing” a lot of things when they have no feeling behind them?

  10. Macy Kinder says:

    I definitely believe that someone must “be” a good leader before that person can “do” any kind of effective leading. A leader needs to have all of the right qualities and characteristics in order to be the kind of leader that is appealing to his/her followers. A leader won’t get anything effective done if he/she isn’t good at being a leader. In 10 years I want to be on my way to being a television producer. As a producer I must be able to lead a crew and cast to get the show done. If I’m not confident and driven then I won’t be able to carry out the actions needed.

  11. Grace Ellis says:

    I think effective leaders are a mix of being and doing. Doing is definitely more about tasks and processes, while being is about being a role model, influencing others, and building inspirational relationships. Being has to do with the presence and personality of leaders, and I think that ties into charisma and confidence. After reading the last paragraph of the post, I believe that the being part of leadership is more important, because unless leaders can form strong, healthy relationships with followers, they will be unable to lead.

  12. Courtney Green says:

    I think that I am a mixture of “being” and “doing” leadership. It depends what the task at hand is. Also when others hold leadership roles it makes me feel as tho I can take on a “being” role. However, if no one is stepping up to the leadership role I feel the need to help lead the group in the right direction. My hope is that I will be come a more effective leader all the time and continue to have a mixture of “being and doing”.

  13. Victoria Gray says:

    I think it is so much easier to “do” leadership than to “be” leadership. Personally, I am extremely task orientated and am always focused on accomplishing a goal. Therefore, I usually focus much more on the “do” part of leadership. Unfortunately, I think when an individual puts all of their focus on just doing and finishing a task, they often loose their quality of leadership by not “being.” My hope is that in ten years, I can develop into being a leader that creates quality relationships and that I can be happy and have a purpose in my work and family.

  14. Taylor McClain says:

    I definitely identify more with “being” than “doing”. This idea sort of reminds me of the element of congruence within the social change model. As a leader, I don’t want to just go through the motions to be as efficient as possible. I want my actions to parallel my beliefs. I want to have a personal connection to the goals I’m attempting to achieve, and more importantly, I want to have a personal connection to the individuals I am leading. As leaders, we are focused on achievement and progress, but we must also focus on each other. We must focus on our emotions and our personal beliefs. When we incorporate the things we really value into our lives and our leadership styles, we can be all the more effective.

  15. Rachel E says:

    To me, a leader needs to have a mixture of “being” and “doing.” Without balance, the leader could be to task oriented and then end up having disengaged followers or if the leader is to relationship oriented then some tasks may never be completed. I am a “doing” person because I like to see the results/end product after completing the task. I find myself to be more of a “being” person because I love to work with others, and pull many ideas together to end up with a great final product with everyone’s input included. In 10 years, I hope to have my own family, and my own vet practice. In order to have a successful vet practice it requires the input of many people.

  16. Abigail Bartolome says:

    As much as I would love to be able to say that I am “being” a leader when I am in a leadership position, I think that I sometimes step up as a leader by “doing leadership” whenever I am in a leadership position. This is especially evident is school projects where I focus so much on the final grade that I manage everyone to make sure that everyone is doing what they need to do, and that they are doing right. I feel slightly justified in leading this way for school projects because the product is a grade, and the product is not necessarily a movement to change the lives of others. However, when I am in a leadership position for service, I like to think that I am “being” a leader when I am working with younger kids or trying to raise awareness for children in shelters who cannot read. It all goes back to the idea of when to be which type of leader.

  17. Catherine (Cate) Beach says:

    I believe that to be an affective leader, you must be both “being” and “doing”. A “do” leader is necessary to achieve goals and keep people on tasks, but a “being” leader creates those relationships that are necessary for motivation of others to occur. Also, “doing” leaders are essential because if there was a conflict or an occurrence that needed assistance from the leader, it would be detrimental that the leader be completely with that person telling them so they can receive all of the information possible and make the right plan to fix it. I truly think that a leader must have the “being” side because more will be accomplished and the task conducted will be more enjoyable, as well as everyone deserve to be listened to and devoted attention too. I know that I would want to have someone fully be there for me as a leader, and I would do the same for them if we were in swapped positions.

  18. Esther Jeong says:

    At this point in my life, I am most definitely more about doing. Especially coming into college and hoping for a successful future that every student is told to aspire for. I mean this IS the place where we came so that we can BE that person we said who we wanted to BE when we were younger. There is a clear goal that I want to achieve and steps to get there and am working hard to successfully reach that point. However, as i am being stretched and challenged in this college environment, i am learning about myself and my self and how i want and would do. I would like to see my self grow in becoming a more “doing” leader (?).

  19. Allyson True says:

    After reading that article and thinking about my leadership, I think I am more about doing. I think doing fits better into my life right now. I am in school, learning from professors, and trying to become the person I want to be. I think after college and school we will all have more opportunities to “be.” The leader of the Marching Virginians here at VT is the perfect example of “being.” He always make each member of the band feel important and he is that person who gives you his full attention when you walk into his office. I think just talking to him once would make you want to be more like a “being” leader.

  20. Thomas Nave says:

    There is definitely a fine line between “doing” leadership and “being” a leader. Some people simply like the idea of doing leadership to have the position to control people, especially in a work-type environment. Other leaders ARE leaders and are naturally talented at being a leader, even though they are not power hungry. They benefit the group and take control, but in a more positive manner.

  21. kelsey edmonds says:

    At this point in my life right now, I am definitely more about “doing”. When it comes down to it, I want to graduate from college with good grades, attain a career that is successful, and raise a loving family. I know exactly where I want to go next and what goals I need to reach in order to get there. However, I often worry that I need to “be” more of a leader. I tell myself constantly that I can focus more on relationships and the people around me after I become satisfied in achieving the dream I wanted. However, I believe a leader must have aspect of “doing” and “being” at every moment of their life, not just waiting until the end when it is necessary for a career.

  22. Mariana Sa says:

    Taking my own experience with leadership as starting point, I can say that I see it as a combination of being and doing. According to my view on leadership, doing is definitely a part of being. We do things for others, for our community and for ourselves because we have a motivation, a goal and we are able to determine a path towards a goal. Doing is an essential part of our behavior as leaders, and it requires from us the ability of being leaders. Thus, I can say that right now I am working towards a proper balance between being and doing. I watch my behavior in order to act as a leader in my daily life, and this doesn’t seem to be hard task, specially with the RLC environment; but the part of doing implies personal commitment, which I believe comes with time. So maybe this is where I want to be in 10 years, living a life where I can accommodate being and doing more smoothly.

  23. Emily Hucks says:

    Like everyone else said, there is a difference in being a leader and doing leadership and also just like a couple of people have said, I am defiantly “doing” leadership instead of being a leader. At this time in my life, with school; learn from my professors and peers, I can’t be a leader I can only be doing leadership activities.

  24. Dixon Holland says:

    The clear correct choice of these two is being a leader rather than doing leadership because one must be a leader in order to actually make a difference in what or who they are leading. If one is just doing leadership, they are just doing what is asked of them and not completely being a leader of a group of followers. If someone is being a leader, then they clearly are a leader, and go beyond what is asked of them as a leader. I find myself as being a leader because I always try to get the task done, but also doing that much more to make the project or task more effective.

  25. David Bohn says:

    I really like this article and the distinction between the “doing” and “being” leaders. Personally at this point in my life I am more of the doing leader. In the workplace (hourly jobs), it is much easier and in my opinion more efficient to have the “doing” leadership mentality. Tasks must me completed and it’s best in some situations just to get it done. Being a leader is more effective in making people feel valued and respected. It is important to listen to others and find a balance in being a leader, and getting things done. Doing leadership is more effective in the short-term. Being a leader is more effective in the long-term, as I interpret it.

  26. Kristina Gallagher says:

    I definitely am more of a “doing” than “being” leader. For me, I find more joy out of actually making a difference than being looked at as a leader. In ten years, I see myself as an elementary school teacher and having the same leadership style.

  27. Carly Scullin says:

    I consider myself as more of a “doing” leader. I like to be involved and make changes. I think it is important to make connections and relationships with people, but I would much rather be “doing” something. I do think in order to gain the best experience in a leadership position it is important to be a leader. By being a leader one can make stronger connections to what they are doing, and whatever you are doing becomes more meaningful.

    • Kyle Rushton says:

      I completely agree with Carly. I see myself as more of a “doing” leader and I like to be involved to make a difference. During high school, I stayed active and participated in many sports and community service activities in order to seek change in my community. In order to make these changes, however, it is important to “be” a leader. Though two very different things, the two go hand-in-hand.

  28. Katy Kelly says:

    I think that I’m much more of a doing leader. As the saying goes: “actions speak louder than words” which is important because sometimes people need to take action. As for what I want to be in 10 years, I want to be happy, I want to be settled, but most of all I want to be one of those people who people stop and listen too. I want to be a great mind.

  29. Alexander Jones says:

    Doing leaders and being leaders are noticeably different. Many people just like having control over everyone while others enjoy being a leader by helping a group through a task. I truly believe being leaders have a more positive effect on a group over doing leaders.

  30. Annie Walsack says:

    I feel as if I am a ‘doing’ kind of leader. I think it is important for things to get done, or else there is no point in being a leader if there are no results. However, I also think that is very important to ‘be’ a leader. There should be a good balance between the two in order for there to be an efficient leader. In ten years I’m not entirely sure were I want to be. I want to “be” me. That’s really all.

  31. John jones says:

    If I had to associate with only one of these, it would be that I am a “being” leader. I value the ideas of reputation and respect, and would want to establish myself as a leader who genuinely values everyone in a group aspect and works to have a connection with them. To me it is more important to maintain a reputation as a good person and to have good relationships with subordinates than it is to simply accomplish goals. Being a good leader leads to the accomplishment of the goals so in a way a “being” leader can fulfill the roles of a “doing” leader.

  32. Courtney H says:

    I am not a “being” kind of leader. It is tough. With all of the technology today, it is so easy for me to be distracted with the hundred projects I have due, or check my text messages every five seconds, or see what is happening on twitter, instead of make the conversation i am having with the actual human being my top priority. I want to be the “being” leader, and I am working on it. Because doing tasks and accomplishing my goals will only get me so far; if I can’t make people feel important than I will lose followers faster than I thought possible.
    In ten years I want to be satisfied with my choices in life, and proud of who I am.

  33. Patrick Lawrence says:

    I think I could say that I am a “being” leader. Like Bones says, a good leader in my opinion is one with solid reputation and respect. How could you get more followers if you had a poor reputation and didn’t respect your followers? As far as the difference between doing leadership activities and being a leader, there are only so many things I can do to make myself a “being” leader at this time of my life. Hopefully in the future though, I can become a “being” leader more fully. A happy medium between the two would also be a positive thing, so me “doing” now and “being” later could combine beneficially.

  34. Maggie D says:

    I especially like the quote from this article “we are taught what to DO as leaders, but we have to learn how to BE good leaders”. We are taught the fundamental skills in LDRS 1015, but it is now our job to apply what we have learned in class in order to become “being” leaders. I think that in time and practice “being” leaders will become more natural to us. At this point in our lives, we all are focused on the plans of what we want to “do” in the future instead of embodying the characteristics and traits we hope to continue to be 10 years from now.

  35. Ryan Jenvey says:

    I see myself as a “being” leader than a “doing” leader. I tend to focus on building relationships with people before I focus on the upcoming tasks and completing things on my list. I do, however, need to be aware of making an effort to balance out the two. This will help by actually getting things done because without that, there is nothing that I am leading people towards.

  36. Crista Watson says:

    Doing and being. Basically what this article is about. You can “do” basically anything whenever you want. You can “do” hings for other people, you can “do” the laundry, you can “do” your homework. All it takes is the energy. However, to “be” something requires much more than that. It takes a true character to “be” something because it comes from within the person.

  37. Ethan Brown says:

    I see myself as more of a being leader. I personally am much more in favor of being seen in a good light among my peers and known as the guy that does things right. Also, to be a “being” leader requires that one is congruent in ones actions because if someone says something and then acts in a completely different then they lose a sense of credibility among peers. Losing credibility is detrimental to ones leadership qualities.

  38. Miles Rachner says:

    In ten years my hopes are probably like many others, which is to have made it through college and be working happily in my desired field of work. Also making a good wage and having a nice family cannot hurt. But how we all get there is what counts. We have to be able to do our work to get there, but at the same time we must be in control of our life and not skew from our plans. Not only will a leader benefit from being able to balance doing and being, but anyone in life who can balance what they do with how they want to be will have a good life in my eyes.

  39. Libby Howe says:

    Right now I feel like it is more important what I am “doing” but, at the same time, this is directly and very intimately related to what I am “being”.
    I am one of 30,000 individuals studying at Virginia Tech. Standing out is damn near impossible. So what I am “doing”, what people see, is more important that what I am “being” at the moment. That being said, those who go furthest with what they are “doing” do so because what they are “doing” is the same as what they are “being”. Those who believe and are directly and personally involved in what they are “doing” go the furthest.
    In ten years I hope that people recognize what I am “doing” and that what I am “doing” makes me happy with who I am “being”.

  40. Haley Ward says:

    I believe that in order to be an effective leader, one must be, both a “doing” leader and a “being” leader. I personally identify myself as a “doing” leader though, because just as Lindsay said, I too, enjoy reaching my goals and actually accomplishing tasks. I have always felt that what you are doing goes much farther than being, though that might just be my mentality. However, I know it is important for me, and all leaders, to also work at being a “being” leader in order to be a more effective.

    • Kyla Mauro says:

      I agree with Haley, that it is important to not only tell the followers what they what to here and what you believe in, but the leader must follower through with actions. They have to carry out and follow through. If they don’t do this then the followers wont see any progress and will not believe in the leader as much. In order for the leader to survive they must follow through with what they believe in.

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