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Being vs. Doing in Leadership

The Power of Being Over Doing in Leadership

March 13, 2024
The essence of impactful leadership lies not in the multitude of tasks we accomplish, but in how we show up each day to create the conditions for learning and continuous improvement.

"Don't focus on how to do, but rather, how to be.”

This was a simple yet profound answer to a question posed on one of my recent Japan Study Trips, where leaders from around the world join me to learn about kaizen and the Toyota Way. We were visiting a company in the foothills of the Japanese Alps whose purpose is “happiness.”

Someone asked the company’s managing director how the organization maintains consistency of purpose—and continues to grow and innovate—through ups and downs and generational leadership change.

He explained that it’s too easy for leaders to focus on doing all the urgent things that are right in front of them. Leaders need to focus more on the essence of their purpose – and their company’s purpose – and the impact they want to have in the longer-term.

In business and leadership, the emphasis frequently lies on "doing"—the myriad tasks, goals and objectives demanding our attention.

Yet in my years of coaching executives and leading continuous improvement transformations, I've learned an invaluable lesson: The essence of impactful leadership lies not in the multitude of tasks we accomplish – the things we do, the tools we use, the projects we implement – but in who we are. It’s how we show up each day to create the conditions for learning and foster a culture of continuous improvement and engagement that ultimately delivers results.

The Power of ‘Being’ in Leadership

As a leader, I've often been caught in the whirlwind of tasks, targets and timelines. Can you relate? It's a common narrative in most organizations: The relentless pursuit of doing often leads to short-term gains but overlooks the sustained growth and wellbeing of the team and the organization.

To have successful outcomes, leaders need to make that critical shift from doing to being.

Shifting to "being" is about embodying the values, vision and purpose you wish to see permeate your organization. It's about creating a culture where continuous learning and improvement are embedded in every action and interaction. 

Here are three examples from my experiences that illustrate the power of being over doing:

1. Operational excellence practitioners

Recently, I coached a team of operational excellence practitioners from a global company, all deeply skilled in their technical expertise but struggling to make sustainable change. Under pressure to implement a companywide manufacturing process improvement initiative, they were focused on getting results and driving improvements. They saw their roles as technical “doers” working on “getting it done,” rather than “coaches” and facilitators of change—and they didn’t understand why the local operators were resisting their efforts. They felt stuck both on getting the results they were assigned and ensuring the process was sustainable when they left. 

We spent time uncovering that their purpose was not just to do but also to be: To help people learn how to improve their work and engage them in the process, rather than just implement a technical process to finish the task and move on.

Over several months, they shifted their focus from implementing to engaging, coaching and learning. They not only achieved their immediate improvement goals but increased a sense of ownership among individuals on the team, increasing the likelihood that the gains would be sustained and improved upon. As an added bonus, these leaders felt more satisfied and connected to the reason they were drawn to a continuous improvement role in the first place.

2. Transformational change leader

In another instance, a senior transformational change leader whom I’ve worked with for years (and featured on a recent episode of my Chain of Learning podcast) was grappling with the balance between doing and being. He is a natural problem-solver, and was always quick to provide solutions and come up with ideas for team members or project teams. However, he came to realize that this approach often disempowered team members. They were always asking for his answers rather than initiating their ideas first.

Through our work together, he transformed his leadership style from doing the problem-solving himself to providing support for others to generate ideas and take initiative. He began to set clear, purposeful direction of the organization’s goals and then stepped back to support, teach and empower his team as they determined how they would get there. He shifted from telling to asking, from solving to facilitating. This not only enhanced his team's problem-solving capabilities but also cultivated a more innovative, engaged and resilient team culture.

He realized that if he stayed connected to who he wanted to be as a leader and his desired impact on his team, that he was better at asking questions, seeking input and giving team members space to experiment and learn, instead of having everything done “right now.” He now says that he has a leadership superpower – and it’s so simple: He focuses more on how to be so that his team can focus on how to do.

3. Executive leader

Even Isao Yoshino, a Toyota executive whose insights have shaped my understanding of leadership, struggled between doing and being. In my book “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn,” I recount his experience leading a new business venture for Toyota, where, under intense pressure to get the work done, he reverted to doing rather than being. He stopped focusing on everything he’d learned the previous three decades about leadership. He no longer shared the reasons behind the strategic and operational goals for the year or engaged his team members in the development of the plans for how to achieve them. Instead, he sat in his office and did the plans himself because it felt quicker in the moment.

He later reflected that this shift away from his values led to misalignment and missed opportunities. He lamented that he became so focused on the doing that he lost sight of how he wanted to be as a leader. By not taking the time to talk with the team, explain the challenges and seek their input, he lost time because they were not aligned—and, ultimately, the business failed, costing the company over $13 million. His reflection is a powerful reminder that the journey of being is ongoing and requires constant commitment.

Why can it be hard?

So, why is it so hard to focus more on how to be and less on how to do? 

I have observed three consistent challenges – no matter the country, industry or size of the company – that create tension between doing and being. 

  1. We are a results-, outcomes- oriented and action-driven culture. Goal-setting and figuring out how to achieve results is Leadership 101. We are rewarded for winning, achieving and having the answer. In our busy, results-driven world, it’s easy to lose sight of how we can nurture other people’s ideas and capabilities to achieve those results.
  1. We don’t feel like we have time – we are in a constant state of urgency and firefighting in our companies. With so many priorities and crises – or what we perceive are crises –  we are overburdened and don’t feel like we have the time to think, go see and check-in with people. Yet, does everything need to be solved right now? Is everything really a “priority”? If we can slow down to understand the real priorities, we can create the space for more “being.”
  1. Personally we might be high achievers who like the doingor we are used to being the expert with the answer. It’s rewarding to be promoted for our success as individual contributors or technical experts, but this can be limiting if we are working with other people – if our focus is always about what we want to accomplish rather than the impact we want to create in other       

Embracing "Being" Amidst Challenges

The happy balance between being and doing comes from showing up very intentionally to create the conditions where people are engaged and have the opportunity to contribute their ideas. By harnessing collective thinking, we can actually get more done.

Here are strategies I've found effective in overcoming the challenges of being vs doing:

Reconnect with your purpose and the impact that you want to have. For me, drawing and visualizing these elements has been profoundly impactful, guiding my actions and decisions.

When we can write down or draw what is most important to us, we re-humanize ourselves, our teams and our companies. 

I encourage you to take out a piece of paper and start drawing. Get clarity on who you want to be and what is most important to who you are, personally and professionally. 

Then do the exercise with your team sometime later this week—I bet you will learn something new about your team members and feel more connected to them.

Take an “intention pause”: Cultivate the practice of taking a moment to reconnect with your purpose and intentions. Connecting with who we want to be helps us be proactive rather than reactive.

Engage with a coach or trusted mentor who can help you maintain your focus on being. A coach can provide perspective, challenge your thinking and support you in aligning your actions with your deeper leadership purpose.

When leaders focus on being, they foster environments of trust, engagement and continuous learning. They create a space where every team member feels valued and inspired to contribute their best. The journey from doing to being is transformative for the entire organization. It cultivates a culture where sustained improvement, innovation and well-being are the norm. It's about building a legacy of leadership that values people, learning and purpose above mere outcomes.

I invite you to reflect on this simple yet profound shift: "Don't focus on how to do, but rather on how to be."

It's more than a mantra; it's a pathway to deeper, more impactful leadership. Reflect on how you might begin to apply the principle of being in your leadership journey. Your path from doing to being starts now.

Katie Anderson is an internationally recognized leadership coach, consultant, speaker, and learning enthusiast best known for inspiring leaders to lead with intention to increase their impact. Episode #4 of her podcast, Chain of Learning, includes more about the exercises and tips included in this column.

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