A year and a half ago I wrote a description of leadership presence that ended with the statement “in the next article, I will describe the process for developing leadership presence.“ But then, writing it down felt either too trite or too complicated. I let this article-writing intention go and during the past two (Covid) years I spent a lot of time practicing presence and training others to be present together. Now I feel much better equipped to provide a clear and articulate answer.
And the answer is practice! There are two specific kinds of practice that are needed for most people who are already managers or leaders to reach new levels of leadership presence.
The kind of leadership presence I’m talking about is:
- The capacity to maintain presence of mind in challenging conditions.
- The charisma to share sincerely and passionately, connecting people to a purpose and eliciting their support, motivation and engagement.
- Confidence, conviction and trust that is grounded in a complex and paradoxical reality.
Practice #1: Strengthen your ability to notice.
Many people who have risen through the corporate ranks to higher levels of leadership have done so at least in part through speed and intensity. They have leveraged their quick thinking to produce analysis, strategies, plans and communications that others can follow. They have organized their lives to prioritise thinking and working so that they can stay ahead of their colleagues. They pushed themselves to take on professional challenges that gave them distinguishing experiences, and they worked hard gaining post-graduate degrees and/or specific expertise that led to recognition and promotion.
Are you someone who listens to podcasts at every possible moment? Do you use the high-speed playback on your videos? Are all your days packed with activity? Does your mind jump quickly to conclusions? Do you lose patience when people are slow to speak?
While this practice of speed and intensity has its rewards, it does not support leadership presence. Presence requires a different frequency of attention –the slower mode of being rather than doing. By slowing down, you can sense another realm of information that is just not available at a faster pace.
This first practice requires that you deliberately stop your mental activity and intellectual input, starting with just a few minutes at a time. Stop trying to accomplish something and just be. Hold your attention gently on the present moment experiences of your senses, especially feeling and hearing. It’s quite likely that you will feel impatient or bored. You can take those feelings as feedback that you are on the right track. Your mind will likely jump to thinking again and again. Your practice is to notice that and keep bringing your attention back to the present.
If you continue practicing like this, gradually you will develop to the point where your mind is always clear and present with all your activities. You know what is going on. You use your mental power deliberately and appropriately. Life feels easy and joyful. You increase your value as a leader by consciously sensing much more than others can.
Practice #2: Soften your triggers.
Everyone has triggers. For me, when I have a near deadline and technology lets me down, my temperature rises, and I start swearing. I can’t think straight, and I do things that are regrettable. And I also have more subtle triggers such as when I go quiet during an awkward interaction. Triggers are specific situations that cause us to act fearfully and unconsciously.
When this kind of breakdown happens, I can be forgiven by those who know me because they know that most of the time I am calm, clear and kind. They know that this loss of temper is an exception to the rule. But when it happens to a leader who has hundreds or thousands of followers, it breaks trust. People judge others based on what they see, and people remember emotionally charged experiences more than regular events. This small loss of trust creates a small amount of fear which creates caution and distance between the leader and their followers.
And there are many other kinds of emotional triggers. Which ones do you experience?
Does your mind close when certain people speak? Do you feel frustrated by certain aspects of organizational life? Do you lose your temper? Do you shut down, back away or avoid certain situations? Do you rant?
Emotional triggers and blocks are natural and human AND they can be dissolved with specific practices.
This practice involves fully feeling and accepting the bodily sensations and emotions that are triggering you. By gaining full awareness and staying with these uncomfortable sensations, they lose their power over you. Although it is entirely possible and effective to do this on your own, it helps, especially at first, to have guidance and support from someone trained in this approach.
With this kind of practice, you will gradually discover that you are not triggered the way you used to be. As well as seeing this in myself, I have hundreds of examples of clients I have worked with who have gained freedom from specific emotional reactions that had been holding them back.
As you become more present and less reactive, your capacity as a leader grows. People open up around you giving you access to a very wide range of perspectives and intelligence. You can see more clearly your own and other people’s fixations, delusions and passions and therefore you make better decisions. People want to work with you and support you. People trust what you stand for.
Amplify the Practices
Both of these practices for developing leadership presence can be amplified by doing them in pairs or small groups. Humans are relational beings; the presence of another person automatically draws our attention to the unfolding moment and helps us stay on task. It is much easier to listen to ourselves when someone else is there to receive our words. It is easier to keep our minds in the present moment when someone is expecting to hear us. For this purpose, I offer training and drop-in practice groups in Mindfulness in Dialogue, a set of techniques for listening and sharing with others in ways that strengthen our ability to notice and soften our triggers. I also offer one-on-one sessions for anyone who would like some initial guidance for softening your triggers.
Leadership presence is a mark of the most effective leaders, the one’s who inspire their followers into action with positive energy. This quality allows a leader to stay keenly aware and confident, even during the most challenging circumstances. This kind of awareness brings deep insights into decision-making during complex adaptations. Presence like this supports leaders who are genuinely bringing more peace to the world even as they navigate through environments and systems that are struggling. And leadership presence can be developed, step by step through daily practices that bring joy and meaning to life.