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To Be or To Do?

Anyone that knows me knows that one of my key influencers is Col. John Boyd, USAF. Boyd is most famously known as the mastermind behind the concept of the decision-making model referred to as the OODA Loop (Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act). Boyd is also known for his development of air combat tactics for fighter pilots, design of many military aircraft, and as a war theorist, producing seminal work in maneuver warfare theory that was adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps. I have studied his theories and apply them to emergency management and disaster response. I have also studied how Boyd’s theories apply to leadership.

My favorite Boyd leadership concept was that of “to be or to do.” Boyd opines that there are two types of people. The first are those that embrace the status of a title and “being” whatever that title bestows. If the title was king (any title or profession works, just insert it in place of king, such as police chief, emergency management director, plumber, etc.) a person who favors simply being a king would likely embrace the ceremonial aspects of being king and enjoy the power and privilege that comes with it. They would be more concerned with themselves and their title than with actually doing what a good king would do.

The second group of people are the doers. A doer is going to be less concerned with the pomp and circumstance and more interested in mastering the position and crossing off lists of things that a good king should be do. A doer will study the fundamentals and advanced concepts of their trade. They will apply action to influence and motivate people to complete the tasks that need to be done that make a difference. If they don’t do it through delegation, they will be doing it themselves. Far less time (if any at all) is spent being concerned about colleague or superior’s perception and more time is spent doing things that will make a difference in the mission, people’s lives, or the world as a whole.

In Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, he recounts a dialogue between Boyd and a protégé. Boyd offered the following counsel. “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said, “and you are going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something—something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into Leopold’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

I have heeded this advice ever since I read the book and have tried to live according to this principle. At one point, I came face to face with a “be’er” prophet. The be’er was politically connected. He was in a senior position to me, but outside my chain of command. He had just been upended in a joint meeting with the boss. He followed me to my office after the meeting and closed the door behind him.

The be’er said that I held a tremendous amount of influence with the boss (The boss was a do’er himself and appreciated that in me). The be’er, in an attempt to change my recommendation and as a way of cautioning me to future projects, told me that I needed to be careful and understand that there is a network of political influencers that will protect me and look out for my career if I made the correct political decisions, but that if I continued to be indifferent to their desires, they would undoubtedly sabotage my career. He was giving me a choice.

At that moment, I said to myself, this is the exact caution that Boyd referred to in the above spiel to his protégé. I was stunned at the near identical way that the conversation played out. Needless to say, I felt the things I was doing in my job were innovative and ultimately in the best interest of the citizens I worked for as a civil servant. The choice was clear to me and therefore easy. I was to continue doing, and if that resulted in career interference, so be it. It was the right thing to do, and in the words of Mark Twain, “You are never wrong to do the right thing.”

As a leader, take time to reflect about who you are. Are you doing or are you being? Are you establishing a culture that enables do’ers and discourages be’ers? Do you have be’ers in your organization that are intentionally being subversive to enhance their career? Are they making decisions for your organization with a be’er value set? These be’ers can significantly inhibit your organization from doing what it should be doing.

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