Developing a Leadrship Presence

As the Marine band plays Hail to the Chief, the President strides into the room and everyone in attendance stands and claps. It is part of the pomp and circumstance of our President as Head of State.

Richard Nixon reveled in the pomp; Jimmy Carter did not. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used it wisely as does their successor, George W. Bush. While there is theatricality to the moment, there is something more profound – leadership presence.

Those of us who are not President but aspire to leadership can learn much from national leaders when it comes to exuding command bearing. The archetype may be the ceremonial entrance just described, but the genuine expression of such presence occurs wherever the leader goes. There is an aura about the leader that perks our interest and makes us want to pay attention.

Reason to Believe

Leadership presence is a necessary attribute of leadership. You can define it as the presence of authority imbued with a reason to believe. What matters to us most is authenticity. That cannot be faked, but it can be amplified.

While leaders project it, followers authorize it with their approval. Just as leadership is a reflection of earned authority, leadership presence, which enhances the leadership moment, is derived from the support of others. It cannot be assumed through birth or heritage, though many kings and queens have acted as if they have it and don’t.

Leadership presence is a form of communications and as such can be taught and put into practice. Here are some suggestions.

  • Project authority. One of the memorable Seinfeld episodes featured the ever striving, but ever-lazy George Costanza leaving meetings or conversations with a joke or a good quip. He was following the old showbiz adage of always leaving on a high note. While entertainers play for laughs, leaders can emulate the example of leaving on a high note. Many executive presenters save a favorite story for last, one that leaves people with a sense of who you are. Such stories do not come out of thin air. They are practiced, polished and dropped in to give emphasis to your point of view. Often such stories are not about the leader at all, but rather about the company or its people even customers. Such stories reflect on the contributions of people toward the enterprise.
  • Tune into the organization. In our fast paced work environment, there may be no more overlooked aspect of communication than listening. Most good leaders are keen listeners. Their rise to leadership was a result of their ability to glean ideas from others and meld them with their own; that process begins with listening. As managers, these leaders have learned to value what people say. Listening provides an insight into what is going on in the organization: it is an ongoing status report of activity. Good listeners also hold people accountable for what they promise to do. And if they don’t do it, the leader follows up with questions. Listening extends the leadership presence because it demonstrates concern for people as well as a monitoring of what must be done.
  • Appreciate the efforts of others. Many middle school kids have had to sit through music appreciation classes. While the pieces of music ranging from the classical to the contemporary are timeless, their presentation leaves kids twisting in their seats. And so it is with many managers. They take the contributions of their people for granted; they assume people will do their jobs. It is true you don’t get a medal by showing up but all of us crave some recognition for our efforts. Those bosses who do show appreciation for their people are examples of people who know what people do and how they do it. These bosses promote their shining stars. They put these stars into positions where they can teach other employees, and help strengthen the capabilities of individuals and teams.
  • Hone your presence. Communication is a holistic process but it is also very tactical. Therefore, when you want to exert leadership presence be specific. For example, think before you speak. Clarify your messages to make them clear and coherent. Develop “elevator talks” for key subjects. On the other hand, acknowledge other people by name. Make conversation about what they are doing or plan to do. So much of leadership is not about you; it’s about the other person. Reflect on that concept and find ways to practice putting others first. And when you do, they will respond in kind; they will exert more autonomy and authority. That frees you to enjoy one of leadership’s most rewarding aspects – time for yourself that you can use to reflect, think and plan.
Presence is Earned

Leadership presence does not come automatically with rank. While many CEOs and generals may hold heavy titles and their presence may seem lofty, the proof of their leadership is what they accomplish. People get put into positions and often don’t succeed.

Laurence Peter documented that phenomenon a generation ago with the Peter Principle. Such failures often stem from a lack of leadership presence. These managers fail to build rapport with their people. They assume it is their way or the highway and do not accept the counsel or opinions of others. Carly Fiorina, late of H-P, is one example and so too is Phillip Purcell, the recently deposed chief of Morgan Stanley. Both held big titles but came to ruin as a result of unmitigated ego and failure to build coalitions rooted in trust rather than rank.

One of the most convincing forms of presence is the silence that occurs between leader and follower. No pomp. No circumstance. Just being there. This leadership presence occurs on the factory floor when a new hire is schooled by a veteran. You find it on the battlefield in the quiet moments between officers and their troops. And you find it in boardrooms when the CEO has the support of her team. No words are spoken. There is a quiet sense of trust that has developed among all parties. But here’s the key point. While trust is a reciprocal act between leader and follower, it starts with the leader. He must trust his followers by giving them a stake in the enterprise as decision makers and contributors. Followers repay that trust by demonstrating their faith in the leader. That trust contributes to leadership presence in its most pure form and it is something to which all leaders can aspire.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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