Leadership starts with being and manifests in doing

At the Australian Institute of Company Directors conference this week a number of commentators and conversations raised the topic of leadership and leadership capability, in the context of a changing world. This got me thinking about the relationship between what a leader does and who a leader is:

New ways of doing business require new ways of being a leader. Across ten years of conversation with leaders who shape and influence history I have heard constant comment and reflection on shifts, transitions and trends. There is a view that we are undergoing a transition from established ways of doing business to new and different ways, from one way of being in society to another, from accepted governing models to emerging untried models. These changes have raised questions about leadership:who can lead us through these transitions? What capabilities and competencies do they require. Just as we need new insights about models and ways of relating, we need to discover new insights about leadership.

There are two simple aspects to leadership which need to be understood and embraced as you grow in leadership. On the one hand is the question of activity, of what leaders do, of what we observe in our leaders. On the other is the question of character, of what sort of person a leader is, of what the honest leader observes in themselves.

This is a distinction between doing and being, between what one does on the journey and who one is on the journey. It is a distinction between the outer manifestation of leadership actions, and the inner foundation of leadership character, both of which are intimately related and deeply integrated in outstanding leaders. Character underpins our actions, and our actions form our character.

The primary responsibility of a leader is to create an environment in which people can flourish, helping them become all they can be. This extends to enhancing leadership capability in others, building bench strength in the enterprise and fostering collaborative rather than competitive environments. This describes what leaders do.

But the quality and impact of our leadership flows from our vision, values and purpose. It flows from the meaning we discover for our life, and the contribution we are making to the world. It flows from who we are. Leadership starts with being and manifests in doing.

“Give me a firm place on which to stand and I will move the world,” exclaimed Archimedes when he ‘invented’ the lever. The insight is not in the power of a small beam to lift a heavy weight, but in the power generated by the place in which you stand. Where you stand makes all the difference.

It is no small shift from this insight to an even deeper insight that can shape our life: if I am standing in a firm place, I can change the world.

Great leaders know where they are standing before they are tested in the corporate or political battlefield. When one is under pressure to support a dubious decision is not the moment to formulate one’s view on justice, or fairness, or morality. This is done in advance, in the quiet reflective moments which great leaders build into their life.

Perhaps take the time to reflect on questions like these:

  • What matters to you?

  • What values do you bring to each and every moment?

  • How do you describe your character?

  • How would others describe your character?

  • Are you able to stand firm when your values are tested, or do you swing in the breeze?

  • Where are you standing today on the issues that matter?

These are questions of character, about who you are. These are questions about where you stand. This is how you focus on being, so you can then do great things.