Is Quality Leadership about Doing or Being?

 Work For A Cause, Not For Applause  (Unknown)

We, humans, are really caught in a dilemma every day. A tension between applause and working for a cause.

This need to “do stuff” that immediately impresses others in order to gain credibility and ultimately be accepted is more urgent than playing a longer game to find a cause bigger than one individual. It takes many forms both inside and outside the workplace.

I recall way back in 1991 purchasing a lovely sandstone-fronted house in the suburb of Vale Park in Adelaide Australia. The house needed a little bit of work so we set about “doing stuff” that would immediately impress others and make us gain credibility and be accepted.

We gave it a fresh coat of paint

We hung new curtains

We sanded back window sills and stained the wood

We established an impressive vegetable garden

We purchased a wall-mounted Bose speaker system

We replaced the carpets with new ones

But the most impressive project (according to me) was that I built the most amazing fishpond in the front yard. It was no ordinary fishpond. It became like a small swimming pool with different levels, little hiding spots for the fish that would inhabit it, beautiful plants adorned it and the concrete base was even colored to look like an amazing oasis waterhole in suburbia.

People walking by would stop and admire the craftsmanship and heap praise on me – and it made me feel credible and accepted. I had done something that got me instant admiration.

My fishpond work had paid off immediately.

Meanwhile, we had a fuse box in the kitchen that was hidden inside an old wooden box. It was messy and ugly and required work but nobody could see it so we just left it be. No need to fix things that others couldn’t see we thought…

How wrong we were…


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When Leadership Loses Quality

You see one night the thing that nobody could see sparked and caught fire and we woke with the smell of dirty black smoke billowing throughout the house. This smoke permeated through the carpets amd curtains – and left a horrible smell in the house. All of our impressive work that gained applause was ruined by something that nobody could see.

It’s a bit like that in the workplace today when it comes to Leadership.

Most focus is on the fishpond work or the “doing” if you like. Do stuff quickly that results in applause for them and forget the fuse box work or how you’re “being” in the workplace; the cause if you like.

When Leadership Embraces ‘Doing’

So – what does this look like in an organization of fishpond builders? How do you tell? Look for these things:

  • Dysfunctional management teams with a high focus on competing with each other
  • Quick changes in direction, policy, or processes
  • Secrecy and many meetings by the water cooler
  • New projects starting every week
  • Self-promotion is rife with a high tendency to using “I” instead of “we”

You see the fuse box work doesn’t bring you a higher rating or immediate acknowledgment and we live in a world that is now about immediacy.

The fuse box work requires a mindset where one can hold their nerve when playing a longer game and not be seduced by immediate applause, recognition, and acceptance. Fusebox work is critical if your workplace is going to transition to a more human approach because it is H2H interactions that will ultimately make the fishpond so impressive.

Fuse box work is the work of “being” and involves building trust, being vulnerable about one’s strengths and weaknesses, understanding one’s relevance and contribution, creating deeper connections and bonds and engaging in a cause that ultimately results in applause. It just takes longer.

When Leadership Embraces ‘Being’

You can tell when organizations embrace the fuse box work by the following signs:

  • High degree of collaboration and willingness to share amongst Managers
  • Conversations about purpose, relevance, and contribution are frequent
  • Employees feel safe to experiment and challenge the authority
  • Employee development is embraced and resources shared
  • Self-awareness and acceptance of the need to embrace discomfort is the norm

It doesn’t result in a quick sale, a sudden cost-out initiative, or capturing that “low-hanging fruit” that is always talked about in the workplace. It’s ugly, hard, and messy work by nature so we avoid it until something goes wrong – usually in the form of a shitty engagement score, high employee attrition, and a reduction in the state of leadership effectiveness scores.

It also takes out the craziness of short-termism – the need to panic and change direction based on a poor week, fortnight, month, or quarterly result. Building more fishponds if you like to get back to applause and move away from the cause.


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3 Tips to Focus on Be over Do in Quality Leadership

My 3 tips for Managers to make the shift from Fishponds (Doing) to Fuse boxes (Being) are:

  1. Start a meeting by asking attendees “How will you choose to be in this meeting?”

Do you choose to be present, open, provocative, collaborative, constructive?

  1. Introduce the concept of “relevance and contribution” and discuss the why with your team

A: Why am I relevant? (Uniqueness) 

You are relevant because you bring an expert’s insight into the area of building cross-business connections.

You are relevant because you make complexity seem simple for others.

You are relevant because of your courage to challenge regardless of level in order to find the best outcome.

B: How do I contribute? 

You contribute by allowing others’ voices to be heard.

You contribute by respectfully challenging the group.

You contribute in the way you create enough tension to prevent moments of groupthink.

The challenge I personally found was to keep a focus on being when having these conversations rather than going to the easy part which is describing the doing.

  1. Listen for silence and watch for “head nodding” and agreement in meetings as this is a sign that you are building fish ponds when your team knows it should be fuse boxes but you haven’t given them permission to challenge you.  

Are you working on the Leadership related to the Fishpond (Doing) or the Fusebox (Being) right now?


Mark’s first book BEING HUMAN – Why Robots are not the Answer to Business Success was launched in February 2017.

See more at Mark’s homepage 



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