logo image

ATD Blog

Lead by Being—Not Doing


Wed Aug 14 2013

Lead by Being—Not Doing

During interviews with more than 100 sages for my book Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts, one of the strongest themes to emerge was the value of practicing mindfulness. According to Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader, “mindfulness is our natural ability to remember that we are here, present fully in our life—alert, open, and engaged.” This is important is because research continues to support the fact that nearly two-thirds of U.S. employees are not fully engaged in their work and are less productive as a result. And if leaders are not “awake,” it is likely they are not aware of what is going on around them.

Carroll told me that leaders should “lead by achieving nothing.” He said that leaders focus their effort and ambition on getting from point A to point B. “We are always trying to get somewhere (i.e., promotions and climb the ladder) and we want to get there fast. And when we get there, we want to be someone else—smarter, thinner, richer, more successful. In the process, we overlook how to be somewhere and how to be who we are and where we are—comfortable in our own skin,” said Carroll.


Research on mindfulness indicates that instruction on meditation is being offered as a leadership development discipline at such places as The Drucker School of Management and Wharton Business School. Companies like Google, General Mills, Aetna, and Merck are all exploring how meditation can help leaders and employees survive and thrive in the current business environment. Carroll calls mindful meditation “the secret sauce for preserving our sanity as we ride into the frenetic hyper-connected 21st century. It’s about learning to achieve nothing.”

This way of thinking—achieving nothing—contradicts what we normally think. But Carroll explains it this way to leaders: “You wouldn’t be where you are in your career if you weren’t good at getting stuff done. So for you to develop as a truly distinctive leader we will need to focus less on what you do for a living and focus more on what you see for a living.”

When we understand the wisdom of not achieving as an important perspective, we start to ask questions:

  • What are the two main challenges your colleagues face at work?

  • What are the most important unspoken messages you are receiving from your employees, customers, or vendors?

  • What are people afraid of in your organization?

  • Can you describe what inspires your direct reports? 

Carroll says these questions “require a form of wisdom beyond doing, accomplishing, and achieving. They require us to discern, recognize, and understand…we need to drop our ambition to get somewhere and instead completely be where we are—being open, curious, and skillful.”

Most leadership training is on learning the competencies and developing the capabilities to lead. Maybe the most important skill to learn is to lead by being—not trying to achieve. Trying to be calm and clear, to be aware of ourselves and others, and to be fully present in each moment is easier said than done. But give yourself permission to achieve nothing. Just be.


You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy