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What separates doers from dreamers?

Jun 11, 2023 Sunday Nation

A reader of this column sent me a pointed question recently, which went something like this: Many of us are full of dreams; we have high hopes for our futures, most of which end up unfulfilled. What then separates those who achieve from those who just dream?

Great question! Let me have a go at the answer this Sunday, having observed and worked with many, many dreamers—and a few doers—in my time.

Dreaming, firstly, is great. Make no mistake about this. If we didn’t have dreamers, we would never have progress in society. We would just become more efficient at doing the things that we already do. Dreaming is an act of dissatisfaction, of dissent, of dissidence. It comes from a rejection of the status quo, of received wisdom, of the soothing bromides dished out to us by today’s authorities.

And so I say: long live the dreamers! Without them, we would still be grinding stones outside our caves, trying to run after our food in order to catch it, and treating womenfolk as mere vassals.

Dreaming alone is nothing, however; nothing at all. It is merely making wishes and generating prayers. If we depended on those who only dream, we would again be stuck in the stone age—but even more dissatisfied with our lot, having visualised a better life but never tasted it. Dreaming without doing is both futile and dispiriting. As the old adage goes, pilaus cooked only in the mind fill no stomachs.

What then separates the doers from the dreamers? Which dreamers manage to move on to action, to achievement, to results? What traits do they demonstrate? In my experience, the following.

First, they don’t just dream their dreams—they mean them! They are not indulging themselves by dreaming—they are really troubled by their current reality, or are really attracted by the hope of a better future. They’re not kidding around. The dream is just the prelude, not the end result.

Second, doers have a self-belief that mere dreamers rarely do. They seem to have the conviction that whatever dreams they are reciting to you are actually going to occur in real life. This seems to be one of the hallmarks of the dreamer-doer: iron-clad self-belief. Anyone who has spent any time listening to Equity’s founder-CEO James Mwangi, for example, cannot fail to see the certitude in his mind that what is being discussed is also going to happen.

Third, they understand that the doing is the difficult bit, and the dreaming is just a pleasant escapade. One of my favourite quotations is from Peter Drucker, the doyen of all management thinkers: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” That is an excellent choice of words. Your dreams and plans must degenerate into something less attractive, but vital: the tough and tedious work that needs to ensue from the dream. The plan may be the blueprint, but actions begin with the first spade hitting the ground. Doers know this, they embrace it, they live it.

Fourth: doers have great reserves of resilience. They have the grit that doing the hard stuff takes. They don’t give up at the first sign of trouble, they know before they set off that they have embarked on a long marathon under treacherous conditions, not a quick sprint in a stadium with the crowd behind you. In other words: they see it out.

The last point is perhaps the most important for those who dream really big—and especially those who dream about results bigger than themselves. The big doers don’t do everything themselves—they know how to get things done through others. What does execution through others look like? It requires leaders who can do three things really well: motivate their people to want the result; communicate what matters at every stage in the journey; and evaluate early results and use them to learn and adjust. Those three are essential triggers of execution. But wait: there’s also a fourth. Leaders who lead great execution know how to celebrate!

That’s right, celebrate. Humans need to record their achievements, to mark their milestones. Getting your humans to stop and pat one another on the back, to break bread together and bask a little in the glow of their progress is a very good idea for leaders. It’s what keeps the troops going even when the next phase is uncertain.

There we are: that’s why real doers are different. They believe different things, they roll up their sleeves, and they get others to believe what they believe and do what is required. This is not a binary situation, though; there is no requirement to be either a dreamer or a doer. Indeed, we must all aspire to be both. Let us keep dreaming, but also know what it takes to move from mere thoughts to boots on the ground, to actual uplift for the many.

Right now in Africa, we are full of dreams about the next hundred years. Some of us need to grab those dreams by the collar and turn them into tangibles. I hope I have offered some guidance on what that might take.

(Sunday Nation, 11 June 2023)

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