Having a surname starting with B meant that morning roll call at school was over quickly for me.
Allen, Archer, Atwell, Brockis, Brown.
It also meant I invariably sat towards the front of the exam room where seats were determined alphabetically, under the beady eye of the adjudicator who sought to ensure there was no cheating going on.
This made it much harder to grab some quick shuteye or leave early when facing terminal failure in a mathematics or chemistry paper.
(Is there NO justice in this world?)
But being present isn’t about just showing up physically.
The value of being present lies in the mental, emotional social and cultural moment of being.
Think of a leader or person with authority you believe has presence. This could be a politician, an actor, a sports star, or a CEO.
What do you notice about them?
How do they interact with others?
How does their presence make you feel?
Halbert and Lubar In their 2003 book Leadership Presence define presence as
“The ability to connect authentically, with the thoughts and feelings of others.”
Do you agree with this statement?
One quality of a leader with presence is their ability to make it appear effortless. There’s nothing ‘try-hard’ in their approach. We are drawn to them like moths to a flame because we are captivated by their thoughts, their ideas and we want to listen.
Why presence matters now
(Spoiler alert: A statement of the obvious is about to be made.)
The last few years have been challenging, riddled with uncertainty and anxiety.
It’s been an especially difficult time for those in positions of leadership attempting to keep business not just afloat, but sustainable, taking care of the health and wellbeing of their employees and grappling with how to be best prepared for what comes next.
Leadership presence is invaluable to inspire hope, motivate engagement and create new solutions to make work, work better against a backdrop of massive change in the where, the how and when we work and the shift in mindset and expectation of customers, stakeholders, and employees.
Answering the question of why leadership presence matters so much can be found in examples of where it’s lacking.
“The Ghost” was the nickname given to the headmistress of a local school during her tenure.
She was pleasant to interact with, clearly had the interests of her pupils and staff at heart and worked hard to build a caring and supportive environment.
Yet she remained invisible. While working so hard on her vision, she forgot to show up.
Which meant she wasn’t taken seriously. Trust in her ability to initiate and implement desired change cratered. Unable to communicate her vision, appearing unempathetic to concerns expressed, she was seen as unapproachable.
Finally, she lost the backing of the board and staff and resigned.
It’s tough being a leader.
It’s one thing to have a vision but it’s essential to have the communication skills, charisma, and ability to connect quickly and easily with others.
Presence demonstrates you care about others, and isn’t that something we all want?
Being fully present enables you to connect at a human level with compassion and empathy for the struggles being endured.
It’s easier to accept a decision that will impact you negatively when you know the person making it has taken the time to consider all alternatives and is being as fair as possible.
In his book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, Rasmus Hougaard describes four factors required for empathetic and compassionate leadership.
As Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Being present enables you to focus on what is important right now.
This allows the other person in the conversation to feel heard and better understood.
It helps to distil your thinking because by staying present your mind is uncluttered by thoughts from the past or concerns about the future.
Having presence provides the courage to speak up and make an impact. Leaders who speak their truth like Arianna Huffington who lead with compassion and wisdom, and share their own stories of fallibility and vulnerability connect deeply with their audience.
Directness implies clarity. There is less misinterpretation and misunderstanding because the language being used is straightforward, not sugar-coated but still delivered with compassion.
Transparency is about demonstrating there are no hidden agendas, half-truths or coverups.
It brings to mind the saying “Grace under Fire.” Because true leadership is revealed at those times when things are not going well, and they are able to demonstrate their willingness to lead and provide you the confidence they are capable of sorting things out and inspire.
This is what some call executive presence.
Similarly, in her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown reveals the four skill sets she believes nurture leadership presence,
- Rumbling with vulnerability,
- Living into our values,
- Braving trust and
- Learning to rise,
that can all be learned, developed, and measured.
1. What’s your likeability quotient?
If people don’t warm to you, it’s going to be hard to keep them engaged and paying attention to your vision.
In the film the Imitation Game, the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing who is credited with creating a device that could decipher encrypted German communications in World War 2 was told
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are, they will not help you if they don’t like you.”
In a small mastermind group that I used to be part of, there was one occasion where one member who was really smart, (his brain was the size of a small planet) and passionate about their work, shared he wasn’t gaining the traction he expected in his efforts to build his business.
Our mentor’s response was, “Your biggest challenge Steve, is how to be more likeable!”
The room went deathly quiet before Steve nodded saying “You’re right. Can we explore what this might look like?”
Self-awareness is the first step to building presence.
2. Check your level of commitment to the cause
It’s one thing to be aware of how others may see you.
Cultivating a positive image begins with asking yourself the hard question.
“How much do I want this?”
“How important is this for me to be the best leader I know I can be?”
Because without the commitment, even the very best of intentions will fall by the wayside when the next crisis beckons.
Here self-reflection includes reviewing how you responded to previous episodes of challenge and adversity. How did you overcome any self-doubt, or insecurities about your decision making? Who did you seek counsel from at that time?
3. Make your presence felt in a positive way
Sometimes less can be so much more.
Speaking less, listening more, and seeking clarification from others helps you as the leader to gain a broader perspective of other views, ideas, and opinions.
Asking for input, because you don’t have all the answers is a powerful way to quickly build connection, trust, and loyalty.
Admitting that you may have had things wrong helps others to see you as human. We’re all fallible, vulnerable, and imperfect.
Communication is so much more than the words being shared. It’s often more around what isn’t being spoken and the congruence between body language and dialogue.
This is where staying curious to how you are being perceived matters.
Painful as it is, unless you ask, how will you know if how you think you’re coming across matches the experience of your audience?
Leadership presence is something that can be readily learned and developed.
How has leadership presence impacted your motivation to consistently bring the best version of yourself to work?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My next Masterclass on April 26th is taking a look at psychological safety and why it’s not just about being nice to everyone! You can register for the class here.
And places are still available for the Thriving Leaders Retreat in Somerset UK. The early bird price finishes April 30th. Don’t miss out!