“Doing” versus “Being”

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I never fully understood the difference between “doing” and “being.” I had heard it explained by my leadership consultants: “What is most important is your being here, your ability to be present, more than anything you do.”

But when I thought of what makes a good high school principal, I had a list of all the things I should be doing in order to do a good job: “I should be writing more observations, visiting more classrooms, having more 1:1 conversations with teachers, having more conversations with kids, visiting more teacher meetings, planning more activities,” etc.

Then I took a leadership seminar this past May called Transformational Time and Project Management. I’m not even sure that “doing” and “being” were discussed at the seminar.

The Importance of Being Present

And yet, I had the experience the next day of being fully present with my staff– and seeing the impact that my presence made without even trying to do anything.

I saw an employee who has a tendency to check his phone while working to the point that he gets distracted. I had seen him do this many times before– and sometimes addressed it, always inwardly cringing that I “had” to do so.

However, this time, I came up to the employee, and made sure I had his full attention. I explained to him why he needed to put the phone away. I didn’t resist my job– I realize my job was to be with him in this situation. As the day went by, and I kept interacting with him, I saw him come more alive, more alert. Sometimes we were joking around, or planning how to handle a situation, or addressing a problem with his performance. What shifted for me was that I ceased to see the interactions as “negative” or “positive”: they were all positive, actually, because they gave us an opportunity to be together in that moment.

In fact, I started to realize that the actual content of most of my interactions didn’t matter that much. What mattered was giving my full attention to those I interacted with, as if they were the most important people in the world. Being with them, listening to them, was more important than anything I said or did.

It occurs to me that the word “present” is so important in school: “Present!” kids would say years ago when a teacher called roll. We mark staff and students present, or absent, everyday.

However, the word itself is profound. “Present.” I am here. In most cases, people are physically present, but not mentally present, minds ping-ponging back and forth towards the future, the past, preferences, desires, complaints. Building the muscle of being present is a skill, one that I am grateful to be gaining, and one that is bringing a level of productivity, simplicity, and satisfaction to my job that I didn’t know was possible.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman