Earlier this year, I attended a seminar on the topic of leadership presence. The speaker asked the group, “What does ‘presence’ mean to you, and how does it show up?” and invited the audience members to share their answers openly. I found it interesting that a number of people answered as if “presence” were synonymous with “being present.” I consider these separate topics, although related in some ways, and at the time, I couldn’t articulate how they are different. Because I work with clients and give talks on leadership presence as well as mindfulness, a practice rooted in the present moment, I thought it was worthwhile to think through more specifically what the distinctions are and why they are important. Here’s what I came up with.
There are many definitions of “leadership presence,” but to me, it is the quality that you feel when you are around a strong leader. It’s the attribute that projects energy when this person is speaking and, even when you are sitting at the back of a large auditorium, you feel a connection. When the leader is in the room, you want to sit up and listen closely, and what he or she has to say is compelling. Leadership presence invokes respect, admiration, inspiration, and a desire to follow the vision this person describes.
How do we develop leadership presence? Similar to the range of definitions of leadership presence, there are many models out there for developing leadership presence. I believe leadership presence entails three things:
1) Knowing your internal compass, meaning: your values, your passion, and your perspectives, outside of external influences or expectations. As a leader, these are the things that shape your vision and inspire others.
2) The ability to communicate your values, passion, and vision clearly to others, so that you connect with and engage the people you are leading.
3) Having and projecting confidence in who you are and what you advocate. This includes making decisions in accordance with your values and vision, even if others may not agree with you.
Let’s go back to the other part of this discussion, “being present.” This is the same as being mindful – being aware of and open to the present moment, including what is happening with yourself, with others, and with the current situation as it unfolds. So if this is the quality of “being present,” then yes, this is an important part of leadership presence. We must be present in order to connect and share ourselves authentically with others. I’m sure you have had the experience of talking to someone and you can tell that they are distracted, half-listening, mentally elsewhere. Do you feel engaged? Are you inspired? If anything, your experience was probably the opposite – you felt disconnected and annoyed. So if you are to be a powerful leader, you must be able to be present.
But being present is not the same as leadership presence. To develop leadership presence, we must make the additional effort to figure out our values, passion, perspectives, and vision. We need to set aside time to ponder questions like “What do I stand for?” and “What inspires me to come to work each day?” While self-knowledge is a capacity that strong leaders must develop, many leaders struggle to set aside time for this. As Bill George says in Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, “Many leaders…are trying so hard to establish themselves in the world that they leave little time for self-exploration.”
And simply being present – even alone with yourself – is not sufficient for self-exploration, although it is a necessary first step. Figuring out who you really are requires deep consideration, thought, and reflection. Once you have figured out who you are and what you are all about, and you are able to be present – so that others can see who you are and what you are all about – then you have the necessary ingredients for leadership presence.