Who You Are, Not What You Do

A good friend is the former CEO of a well-known company.  He was a serious student and practitioner of positive leadership.  He recently wrote to another friend who is trying to help a sizable company that is facing a crisis and is on the very edge of extinction.

The CEO begins his message by expressing empathy.  He indicates he has been there and, with honesty, he describes the overwhelming anxiety associated with such a crisis.  He then writes the following.

“As you know, during a crisis, most organizations tend to be ruled by their product expertise, as measured by their accounting and/or economics training.  In a crisis, the accounting side tells us to reduce expenses to below the level of revenue.  The economics side tells us to balance supply with demand.  While I have great respect for both forms of thinking, the first thing to be sacrificed are the organization’s most important assets… the people.” 

In my experience, individuals and organizations often retrench, just when we should be reaching out.  When faced with this sense of urgency, organizations often get confused with “what we do” as opposed to “who we are”.

One of the stories I like to tell is about Ovation Guitars and their founder Charlie Kaman.  Charlie founded one of the leading helicopter manufacturers in the world … very special stuff … when faced with a dramatic fall in business rather than fire his brilliant workforce of both technicians and craftsman he put them to work redefining the acoustic guitar market (Charlie was an avid amateur musician).   They single handedly redefined an industry by applying “who they were” (i.e. skilled technicians and craftsman) as opposed to “what they did” (i.e. made helicopters).

My hope is that the CEO and his team are reserving some of their organizational calories along the lines of “who they are” as opposed to “what they do”.    The variables in this equation are “time” (can they buy enough time to come up with their own guitar equivalent) and resolve (are they willing to do things they’ve never done before and/or that may never have been done before).  The time variable tends to be controlled by the shareholder of the business, thus requiring an upward and outward management process.  The resolve variable is controlled by the leadership.  I am more convinced than ever that individuals and organizations are going to thrive in this new post Covid environment … however, it will be different from before.  In my view, those who will thrive are the ones that focus on who they are rather than what they do.



  • In your unit what dynamics emerge in crisis?
  • How much emphasis is placed on “what we do”verses “who we are?”
  • What potential lies in rethinking the emphasis?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




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