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The “Secret” Ingredient of Leadership Presence

The “Secret” Ingredient of Leadership Presence

“Presence” is a buzz word in the worlds of leadership and executive coaching these days. A simple Google search will yield dozens of blogs and coaching sites and articles on the topic, some interesting, some little more than fluff.

But what does “leadership presence” really mean? Why does it matter? And how do you cultivate it, anyway? It seems that there’s no standard, agreed-upon answer to those questions.

What it is

Many of the definitions of “leadership presence” that I see include words like engage, connect, influence, reach out, inspire, motivate. One author defines it as “earned authority” and “the radiance of authenticity.” The authors of Own The Room describe leadership presence as “the ability to consistently and clearly articulate your value proposition while influencing and connecting with others.” They suggest that this ability rests on having your own “signature voice.”

I don’t disagree with any of these definitions, and find value in each of them. And yet I’m still left with the question of what’s underneath these things. What’s actually happening that allows these effects to arise? What enables you to engage, influence, motivate others? What’s the foundation of authenticity?

The “secret” ingredient

It turns out that the most basic ingredient of leadership presence rarely gets mentioned. Yet, without it, any effort to influence, engage, inspire, motivate or connect with others will likely fall flat.

What’s the often unmentioned, “secret” ingredient of leadership presence? Well…actually being present.

Being present is easier to define than leadership presence, and means something very simple: being aware of and connected to your mental, emotional, and physical experience, moment to moment, without resisting it. In other words, when you’re in that important meeting, are you really there?

If you’re like most human beings, you can safely assume that you’re not really present most of the time. Instead, you likely spend a lot of time in either the past or the future – replaying a particular interaction, worrying about what will happen tomorrow, planning dinner or your next job. Or, you’re caught up in a story about what’s happening, rather than being aware of just what’s true at the most basic level – no more, no less.

At a luncheon last week, I heard Joanna Barsh, author of Centered Leadership, tell of a time when she got lost in the story. She and several colleagues were in an important meeting with a potential client, who asked her in a confrontational way about a comment she had made about supply chains.

downward spiralBecause she is not an expert in supply chain management, she immediately went into what she described as “the downward spiral”: “he thinks I don’t know anything…I really don’t know anything!…I’m a fraud…I’m going to lose my job…my husband doesn’t love me anymore.”

I laughed in recognition as I listened to Barsh’s tale. We all tell ourselves stories like that, and then live in them as if they’re real. That’s not being present. When you practice being present, you are aware of the thoughts and the story but see them for what they are…just thoughts. When you don’t believe your thoughts, you are more able to also be present with the underlying emotion that’s driving the story.

At this point, you might be asking, why is this important? Who cares if I’m present with the thoughts and emotions I experience? What does it matter to my leadership?

Why it matters

Being present is crucial to effective leadership. When you’re present, there is more of you there to connect with others, more of you there to notice what’s happening and respond skillfully.

For example, a former client had a reputation as a gruff and unskillful leader who shut down disagreement in team discussions. He wanted to invite different viewpoints, but he felt frustrated when people raised issues he viewed as irrelevant to the conversation and didn’t get to the point quickly. He was also chronically worried about managing time, since his team didn’t meet often and had important business to do.

As long as my client wasn’t present with his own frustration and worry, it came out in gruffness that shut down important discussions. Once he was able to be more aware of what he was feeling and thinking, and the tension in his body, he could acknowledge it without being driven by it. He could reconnect with his intention to invite dialogue, more skillfully discern what issues to engage in and when to shift the conversation, and manage time without shutting people down. Not surprisingly, his team experienced him as a more effective leader.

How to practice

practice makes perfect conceptLike anything else you do as a leader, being present is a skill that you can practice. The good news is that it’s pretty simple. The bad news is that it’s not easy.

In my experience, the fastest way to get present when you’re lost in a story is to turn your attention to your body. Here are some simple steps for practicing this shift:

  1. Notice your posture. What shape is your body taking right now? Is your head thrust forward, or pulling back? Are your shoulders hunched, relaxed, or up around your ears? Is your body open, or closed? Simply bringing your attention to the shape and posture of your body helps you become present in the current moment.
  2. Pay attention to your breath. Let your inhale travel up and lengthen your spine, and let your exhale flow down your body into the floor. If you’re a visual person, you can imagine your breath as light or color.
  3. Allow yourself several long, slow exhales. As your breath flows out, let any tension that you’re aware of in your body release.
  4. Feel your feet on the floor. Or your body in the chair. Pick one place to focus, and pay attention to the physical sensations of standing or sitting.
  5. Notice the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing. The goal here is not to try to change them, nor necessarily to express them (though that might be the most skillful thing to do). Simply notice what’s true.
  6. Get off the train of thought. As you practice noticing the thoughts you have, pay attention to how easily you get caught up in your stories about what’s happening. As much as possible, let the train go by without getting on it. Keep bringing your attention back to your physical experience of your body.

Being present doesn’t always mean that people will be drawn to you as a leader or feel motivated to act on your vision. However, it is the first, necessary step – without being present to the fullness and depth of your own experience, you cannot be present with anyone else. And without being present with others, how can you hope to connect with and influence them?

What about you? What’s your experience with leadership presence? How do you practice simply being present? Please comment below!

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