There is a military leadership saying, “Be, Know and Do” that embodies the journey from ethics and values, to knowledge through to action. There are plenty of people who meet two of the three – all talk and no action, or all action but no knowledge. In typical military brevity, this axiom sums up some of the most important aspects of our roles as leaders.


Kgl. Bayerisches Landwehr-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 1, January 1915One of the things I like about this saying is that it is not prescriptive, it doesn’t lay out a methodology of management or action, but provides a framework for taking appropriate actions. The military side of “Being” involves honour, loyalty, bravery and integrity – in the civilian world, these are words that are rarely used to describe anyone in leadership, yet almost every professional code of ethics is built on these principles. As an engineer, adherence to a set of values provides clients, colleagues and the general public.

Too often the “Being” part is tucked away, out of reach in the day to day of a job, and despite the efforts of professional societies to uphold codes of ethics, it is rare to meet individuals who make an unwavering effort to use ethics to guide their decision-making. The challenge of making ethical decisions in a potentially unethical environment can lead to conflict, but it takes integrity to do the right thing, even if it is unpopular.

Fairness and respect are a huge part of “Being” when it comes to leadership, and when called to lead a group through a difficult time, a leader’s reputation for fairness and determination will carry the day. The quality of fairness is displayed one decision at a time under any and all circumstances, and represents an adherence to laws, contracts, and regulations alongside a regard for the impacts of the decisions being made on people.


Knowing what you know, and what you don’t know is a foundation of strong decision-making. Knowledge is a key component in most engineering codes of ethics, with a call to practice only within your area of expertise.

But for a leader, knowledge goes far beyond that required of technical competency, and as a leader of an engineering team, the other realms of knowledge, including interpersonal, and tactical are often as important in getting the job completed. True leaders always seek out opportunities to increase their professional knowledge and skills, either through training or accepting responsibilities beyond their current position.


The “Doing” is not just executing a task, it also includes the soft skills of influencing and improving, using character traits and knowledge to build the team’s capacity to complete the project and continue striving to be better.

I’ve seen leaders so focused on the completion of a task or project that the development of the team suffers. In this case, the project may be completed, but the cycle of continued improvement has been broken.

Equally, the “Do” reminds us that all the education in the world is useless if there is no action associated with it. Having the conviction to “Do” in accordance with your Knowledge and Ethics takes Moral Courage:

Moral courage is sometimes overlooked, both in discussions of personal courage and in the everyday rush of business. A civilian at a meeting heard courage mentioned several times in the context of combat. The civilian pointed out that consistent moral courage is every bit as important as momentary physical courage. Situations requiring physical courage are rare; situations requiring moral courage can occur frequently.

Leader to Leader Journal


As a civilian leader, perhaps in an engineering design office or government setting, how does this saying, “Be, Know, Do” relate to your work? Are there areas that you feel need improvement in? If it is in the Knowledge or Doing parts, there are plenty of professional development opportunities to hone required knowledge or gain skills in managing a workforce. But if the “Being” part is not working out in your current position, it might be time to re-evaluate where your ambitions and goals fit with your ethics and values.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.