This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Presence, simply put, is a gift we give to others. While it’s true that presence has the power to draw others to us, whether in front of an audience or one-on-one, presence also connects us to others and creates an open channel for communication and understanding.
It’s the magic of human connection that counts, and not some awe-inspiring and elusive personal aura too often used to describe people with presence. It’s what presence serves that matters – or ought to matter –particularly as presence ascends to the top of the list of competencies sought in leadership candidates.
So, what then characterizes the presence that matters? And how can we as leaders and speakers cultivate it to serve one another and the world?
Speakers and leaders often feel the need to create distance from others in an effort to appear polished, professional or authoritative. But that just boxes them in. Those with presence, far from creating distance, seek to close the distance between speaker and audience or leader and follower.
Their words, tone and body language are aligned and working together. As a result, we get a sense of the whole person and who they really are. Comfortable in their own skin, they have the confidence to be real. They can speak their minds and express emotion honestly, and not duck the issues. When that’s done through a spirit of generosity, rather than self-indulgence, the effect is disarming and can put others at ease.
By contrast, most of us let our self-consciousness, especially as speakers, get in the way of our ability to be present and connect with messages. We either become small and apologetic or we overcompensate for our self-consciousness by trying to be something we’re not. We believe we need to perform. But that only produces performance anxiety and puts us too much in our own heads.
The secret is to replace self-consciousness with the consciousness of others. The moment we stop performing and start working to help others get to a better place, breakthrough occurs. Our focus shifts away from ourselves to other people. When we truly notice others and seek to serve them, we soon forget ourselves.
Serving true understanding
We can also cultivate presence by listening with stillness and a willingness to understand, rather than feeling the need to fill silences or to be right. After all, if we’re thinking about what we’re going to say when someone else is talking, we’re probably not listening fully or with genuine empathy. Having presence means creating the space to let others speak their hearts and minds. Doing so recognizes and honours a deeper need in others to be heard and understood. And the intimacy created by genuine listening has the effect of drawing others to us.
People with presence are willing to be fully present in the moment – with whatever comes their way. There’s an inner sense of calm and composure that provides comfort to others.
“I’ve got this,” they seem to say. Most of us are thrown by anxiety not only as speakers but also as leaders dealing with uncertainty or working under pressure. Those with presence notice the nerves and the noise but tend not to be thrown by them. They find a way to rise above it all, and maintain focus and a steady course.
Setting the optimal mood
Presence helps put others in the right mood for working together and accomplishing what matters. As Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, says, “The real task of the leader is helping people get and stay in the optimal state for working at their best.” After all, the person in charge typically has the most influence over setting the mood of everyone else. And mood, in a very real sense, is contagious.
Presence helps set the tone for establishing relationships. The key lies in our perception of others. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, explains, “You don’t process what a foe says using the same neural circuits as you use when processing what a friend says. If someone is a friend you process what they say with the same circuitry as you process your own thoughts.” Foes, however, signify a threat that triggers a fight-or-flight response, which has the effect of impairing our cognitive functions.
We can cultivate presence with any group by seeing others – whoever they happen to be – as friends and allies, not foes. And our friendliness tends to have a reciprocal effect on others, forming a kind of virtuous cycle of connection.
Serving our future
In their book Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, the four authors, including MIT’s organizational learning pioneer Peter Senge, take a deeper cut at the notion of presence. They make the case that presence is a quality of mind necessary to address transformational change in a world dangerously out of balance. Presence helps us see ourselves as part of a larger whole.
“Ultimately, we came to see … presence as leading to a state of ‘letting come,’ of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.” In other words, presence has the potential to save us from ourselves.
From this perspective we can see that presence is available to anyone willing to work at it. It’s an equal opportunity trait, as one writer put it. It’s not a quality reserved only for movie stars, high-powered CEOs, or spiritual gurus. Presence is more than a personal aura. It has the potential to transform our hearts and create positive change.
As author and leadership expert Ken Blanchard has written, "The secret to have having a commanding presence isn’t about personal power, but about empowering others." Now that’s something worth celebrating.
Doug Mollenhauer (@dougmollenhauer) is founder of Quantum Leap Learning, a Vancouver-based presentations-coaching consultancy. His new coaching program is called The Joy of Speaking. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org