Foundations of Leadership Presence

Aug 1, 2017

I recently stepped into a new leadership role. Given that I spend my days talking with leaders who are stepping into new roles or new levels of seniority one would think I would have been better prepared for the journey on which I was about to embark. I’ve held many leadership roles in the past, studied the theories on leadership and understand the various leadership competency models — all of that was and continues to be useful. It wasn’t my understanding of leadership that felt challenged but my leadership presence – my way of being, engaging and acting with the context and people around me.  In striving to demonstrate that I was the right choice for the role, in order to get things done quickly, and with a desire to be liked I lost focus on the people and context around me.  I started to notice that I wasn’t having the impact I wanted to have, wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, and was losing sleep at night. I realized I had to wake up.

What is Leadership Presence?

Even as I sit to write this blog I realize that as much as I think and talk about leadership presence it is difficult to articulate.  It’s one of those things we often know when we see, or more likely feel, but when asked what it is that makes a leader different the words to describe it can be elusive.  When you are in the presence of a compelling leader, you feel different, special or important; this leader commands the room when she enters whether she says anything or not. We’ve all been around a person like this who has something about them that touches us when we are near them – that something is leadership presence.

Leadership presence is more than what we see. Dressing right, having a good handshake, or speaking the right amount at meetings is not all there is to leadership presence. When we admire someone we (of course) evaluate their visible characteristics, but the “it factor” to which we are most drawn in leaders lies beneath the surface.

Leadership presence is a way of being rather than a memorized behavior set or accident of innate personality. It is a way of engaging with the current moment with non-judgmental awareness in a way that is authentic, open, flexible, attentive, and responsive both to what is happening within ourselves and around us. William Brendel, Sara Hankerson, et al in their 2016 article Cultivating Leadership Dharma say (we) “should begin to frame leadership not as a static or distinct approach to specific situations, but as a continuous and collective way of being, accessible in every movement, through greater awareness.”

Thinking about my own example above, as long as I was unconscious and unaware I was unable to see the impact I was having on those around me. I was rigid, defensive, took things too personally, and was trying to prove my point versus listening to others. As a result I wasn’t responsive to the environment around me, wasn’t really listening to my fellow team members and was unable to adjust and grow to meet the context in which I found myself leading. When I woke up to the impact of my way of being I became truly open, aware and present to what was happening within and around me in a non-judgmental way, I began to change and lead more effectively.

Why is Does Leadership Presence Matter?

Leaders with a strong sense of presence create a feeling of safety for those around them, which in turn builds trust and increases collaboration, teamwork, innovation, and creativity.  Rather than being hijacked into unskillful or knee-jerk responses that might cause further harm, they achieve the ability to respond skillfully to people and situations, with compassion and understanding for others and ourselves.

Studies demonstrate that being more present positively impacts decision-making, communication, creativity, and conflict management (K Goldman-Schuyler, 2010).  My clients who make it a practice to cultivate leadership presence report less stress, greater fulfillment, improved relationships both at home and at work and increase organization impact in the systems where they lead.

With a greater awareness and focus on what is happening in the moment (both within ourselves and in the context around us) we have the best access to information to guide our decisions.  We achieve a balanced place of wisdom built on a solid foundation, a platform from which to act with grace and confidence in the present moment, always in line with our intentions, values, and purpose.

How is Leadership Presence Cultivated?

Over the past ten years I’ve become curious about and fascinated by how we cultivate this elusive yet powerful quality of presence. I consider the cultivation of leadership presence the foundation upon which my leadership grows and believe this to be true for the leaders I serve. The start and end point of developing greater leadership presence is the cultivation of ever increasing levels of mindful awareness, commonly referred to as  “mindfulness.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “…paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  From this place of awareness we have the ability to become the person and the leader we desire to be; with the ability to pay full attention, lead with authenticity, respond and act from a state of non-judgmental awareness, and interact with people and context in an intentional and deeply effective way.

Becoming a mindful leader requires an intention to do so (desire) and on-going attention (focus). It requires a commitment to continually pay attention to one’s thoughts, feelings and body, and a recognition that this way of living and leading will continue to deepen over time.   Being mindful is not a task to do, but a way to be—we should not say we are too rushed and stressed to practice mindfulness.  When our stress and anxiety are high we need to be even more mindful so as not to get hijacked into unskillful, reactive behaviors that have an unintended impact.

There are many ways to explore the cultivation of leadership presence–many of which we will discuss in upcoming posts. My own journey to cultivate presence has taken numerous paths over the years and continues to evolve. Today it includes a regular practice of reflection, meditation, yoga, exercise, and on-going feedback from the people with whom I work and lead. Different practices work for different people at different times. The key is to stay open and for now, choose one thing to try.  Maybe it is starting your day with five minutes of quiet time before reading the news or checking e-mail, getting out of your office and going for a walk without your phone, or spending time in nature everyday or with a loved one and really listening to them—begin to experiment with what will work for you.

One simple place to start is by noticing your breath. One client with whom I have worked was the chief operating officer of her organization and she ran from meeting to meeting throughout the day without pause.  She was often stressed and transmitted this to others in the meeting through a part of our nervous system called “mirror neurons” which are responsible for tuning our systems with one another. We agreed that she would implement a practice of pausing, taking a deep breath and centering herself before entering a meeting. This practice stimulated her parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as the decelerator for our brain and leads to a greater degree of presence. She immediately noticed an increase in the effectiveness of the meetings she lead because her newfound calm created a calmer environment for those around her.

What’s next?

In a series of posts I have covered the Three Foundations of Leadership Presence in more detail, focusing on each area in turn to explain why a leader should strive to be:

As always, I invite and encourage your questions and comments.