17 December 2020: To be, or not to be, that is the question

In this famous Shakespeare quote, Hamlet is philosophically reflecting on the question of human existence: whether it is better to live or to die.

In the context of leadership, I believe right now is the time for leaders to make the decision ‘to be’. And those that decide ‘not to be’ will have missed a great opportunity for leadership to shift itself into a new paradigm driven by the turmoil created around the pandemic.

A recent McKinsey article, ‘The CEO moment: Leadership for a new era’, has identified four shifts in the ways CEO’s are leading. These leaders are recognising that now is the time to lead in a new, more positive and interactive way, and they are showing up differently. Most notably, they are showing more of their humanity. McKinsey describe this as CEO’s elevating their ‘to be’ list to the same level as their ‘to do’ list.

I am excited by this shift and hope that when the current challenges of the pandemic ease, this shift sticks!

So, what’s the difference between ‘being’ and ‘doing’?

As many readers will know, we use the logical levels model as a basis for our thinking, and the model makes this distinction really clear. ‘Doing’ describes all the activities we engage in during our working day; presentations, meetings, interviews, brainstorming, writing documents – the list is endless. ‘Doing’ is all about our behaviours. ‘Being’ is all about our identity – who we are, what we stand for, our beliefs and values, the roles we have in life and the unique gifts we bring to achieving the organisation’s vision.

Ask any CEO what they do and they can quickly tell you about their work routines and job-related activities. They can show you their ‘to do’ list! Now it appears from the research that increasingly CEO’s can also show you their ‘to be’ list.

Lady in black top holding a 'like a boss' mug

To create a ‘to be’ list that is authentic, CEOs need to spend time reflecting and identifying who they are. It is not enough to say ‘I am a CEO’ – that is a title and a role – they need to dig beneath this and work out for themselves what beliefs and values drive and motivate them, what they stand for and why they are doing what they are doing, what makes them unique, what are their passions? They need to ask themselves how they want to show up and how they will demonstrate who they are, through what they do. At the level of identity, CEOs lead through their being.

As Gandhi beautifully said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world"

So, what does this shift in how CEO’s are showing up to work mean in practice?

Examples of 'being' from the McKinsey report include:

  • Being more human
  • Bringing more of themselves into the workplace
  • Being seen in more relaxed settings
  • Sharing more of their home life
  • Being seen as vulnerable and empathic
  • Making decisions in accordance with their values and ensuring they are a living proof of these
  • Having a daily ‘to be’ list as well as a ‘to do’ list
  • Making a conscious choice about how to show up each and every day.

One wonderful example given in the report is Michael Fisher of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC).

As Fisher explains: “I never purposefully gave thought to whether there’s a way to be really intentional about how I want to show up every day. So I’ve added a ‘to be’ list to my repertoire. Today, for example, I want to be generous and genuine. I hope I’m that way every day. But today, I want to make sure it stays top of mind.”

The lli profiling tool offers an easy way for leaders to find out more about their identity and their purpose and to then explore how this links to their behaviours. Working with an lli coach, leaders establish their level of congruence and balance across these different contexts, how to express who they are and how they lead with authenticity.

The most important thing to remember about your identity is that it is unique. There is no one else like you. By bringing all of your authentic self to the role you have in your business, you will be a better leader.

A unique snowflake settling on the ground. Photo Credit: Aaron Burden @ Unsplash

Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) says “The more human you are with them [employees], the more trust and empathy they lend to you. They understand you better. That gives you the ability to do so much more, as people give you the benefit of the doubt.”

The key question is, does this new way of being a leader make a difference to the bottom line?

Yes! According to Deanna Mulligan, CEO of Guardian, choosing ‘to be’ is showing a return.

She says “Like many New York financial-services firms, our culture and corporate communications tend to be a bit more formal. Pre-COVID-19, when I was preparing for a company-wide video or speech, that formality, in the form of rehearsals and professional staging, was standard practice. That culture had to change overnight because everyone’s at home. Now, I’m more casually dressed, and it’s more intimate and personal. I’ve made some of my videos outside with the dog, something that we’d never have thought to do before. The feedback has been terrific. Our employee engagement scores, confirmed by regular pulse surveys, have been consistently on the rise since going remote.”

So…. To be, or not to be, that is not the question! To be, and to do, that is the answer.

And for many CEO’s it will be the focus on the ‘to be’ that will be the difference that makes the difference. We are after all human beings and not human doings!

Drop me a message if you'd like to learn more about how to express who you are and how to lead with authenticity. lli might well have both the questions and the answers you are looking for...

Until next time, please stay safe.

Hilary Barnett, co-founder, Logical Levels Inventory (lli)



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