What It Means to Lead with Presence


"John is a terrific leader. Management is very high on him, but there’s one thing missing."

"Sally is a star. She knows her stuff, but not sure she has what it takes to move up – yet!"

These are comments that I hear regularly from human resource professionals who hire me to coach one of their employees.

Dollars to doughnuts that missing ingredient is presence, specifically leadership presence. Which I define as earned authority. Leadership presence is rooted in authority but earned through example. That is, you have the power to things and you have earned the right through your actions to lead others.

Presence is the radiance of authenticity. That is, you radiate sincerity and you have what it takes to make good things happen. It is different from charisma; charisma is a gift, but it’s the sheen on metal. Presence is the real deal – a person’s mettle.


Consider these examples:

—The plant manager who holds meetings on the shop floor to be close to the work;

—The school principal who walks down the hallway greeting by name the children who grin and send him a cheerful greeting;

—The CEO who works in an open plan office and eats in the cafeteria so he can stay in touch with people and listen to their concerns as well as their ideas.


You can think of many more examples from your own life. Whichever example you consider, it is important to understand that just as leadership is 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.

Too often we attribute presence to male leaders. And it’s easy to see why. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan exerted command through their good looks as well as their bearing but neither were empty suits. We remember them for their accomplishments.

Women leaders have a tougher time projecting authority, but not delivering on it. Did anyone doubt former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s authority? At the same time, consider Mother Theresa, small, demur and very old. Yet the strength of her advocacy for the poorest of the poor enabled her to create a religious order, fund her mission, and be of service to so many.

Character lies at the root of strong leadership presence. It is not a nice to have; it is a must have. But character is not an attribute that leaders possess; it is fundamental to the way they act. Character emanates from thought, word and deed. Leaders prove their character when they insist on accountability for themselves and for those they lead.

Radiating presence

One story indicates what it means to lead through presence. During the birthing of our nation, post-American Revolution and pre-nationhood, one figure exerted considerable influence over all parties, from north, south and west. George Washington. As we know from presidential biographers Richard Norton Smith and Joseph Ellis, never was such respect more apparent than during the rancorous days of the Constitutional Convention during which delegates from all the Colonies met in Philadelphia in Assembly Hall to hammer out a framework for the soon to be United States.

Differences were more apparent than agreement yet, as we know from historians, many of these delegates wrote of Washington’s presence in the room. Day after day he sat behind his desk minding his correspondence and saying very little. But he was fully present; his persona presided over the gathering. Witnesses said that it was Washington’s presence that radiated strength and reassurance. No wonder he was subsequently elected President.

Leadership presence therefore is more than a nice to have. More than an exterior sheen, presence is a reflection of deeply held values and a belief in one’s ability to do the job well enough so that people will want to follow.

Presence is projection not simply of power, but of sincerity, values and conviction. And as such it is something that leaders can use to leverage their influence in order to make themselves heard, understood and followed.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world's top 25 leadership experts. John's newest book is 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead.

 (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to visit John's website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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  • Gina

    Some are born with it- others strive to learn and perfect it. Clearly some are not cut out for it at all.

  • pamelahawley

    Dear John, I really enjoyed this article and the emphasis on "presence." Often we talk about passion, enthusiasm, drive, leadership. But presence is a sense of being. It's continuous, not a one-shot conversation or one-off action. It's about living, and communicating that living to others.

    Thank you for showing us not just polar opposites of "good" and "bad" leaders, but also showing that good leaders can and should be, always striving to be better...

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO


    Living and Giving blog

  • George Nicholas

    Very wisely, Washington wore his military uniform to the meeting, earning respect for his military smarts.

    George Nicholas

  • Chris Reich

    WAM! Walk Around Management.

    Presence? Yes, show up. Too many managers run everything from an office and haven't a clue what's going on under their very nostrils.

    I teach WAM! Get up, get out and OBSERVE what's happening. Managers who wish to garner respect must start by demonstrating that they actually understand the business.

    By the way, it's quite common to meet managers who have no idea how things get done.

    Chris Reich

  • Mike Martorella

    John, you identified the essence of leadership presence when you stated, "Character is at the root of strong leadership presence." In my view, an individual with leadership presence has come to understand and become confident and centered in the beliefs that are at their core. When individuals are clear in their beliefs, when their intentions, their
    communication, their actions and behaviors are consistent, that’s when
    they gain the credibility that is the essence of leadership presence. As a
    result they are viewed as genuine and trustworthy… they are authentic.
    There is no hidden agenda, no game‐playing. There is integrity. These are
    people who approach things with their own authentic style that reflects a
    conscious attitude about who they are.
    Mike Martorella

  • John Baldoni

    Michael, we are talking past each other. Leadesrhip presence is earned authority. Authority comes from position, but it must be earned through trust and example. As I write in my new book on the topic, leadership presence is a leader's authenticity. A leader asserts his power to effect positive change. He adds to it with strong decision-making as well as the ability to connect with others. People will follow when they believe in the leader's direction and his commitment to them.

  • Michael Cylkowski

    John, I am at a loss to understand your notion of “presence” in a leader. The control suggested by having an authoritarian and assertive style is not found in leadership literature from Dale Carnegie, to Carl Rodgers, to Kouzes & Posner, to Stew Friedman, to the United States Marine Corps. In fact, if you search for the word authority in most of the current leadership literature, it isn’t indexed. But there is a phenomenon known as leadership without authority – often seen in critical decision making scenarios where someone who has demonstrated ability before and has the trust of the others is given the de facto authority to be their leader by those being led – that is true “presence”.

    I did not intend to imply that leadership or presence was achieved passively; I did not communicate well. Leadership is more effective if actively earned by the leader via a “pull” strategy rather than the “push” strategy I believe you are suggesting.
    M. Cylkowski

  • John Baldoni

    Michael, thank you for your kind words, but I will disagree with your notion of presence. Leaders cannot afford to be passive; they must assert themselves so that others not only will follow but want to follow. Presence includes listening undoubtedly but leadership presence requires is encouraging followership and making things happen. That requires authority and assertion.

  • Michael Cylkowski

    You make interesting observations and give good advice to us to develop “presence”. I believe, rather than being an active communication, as you suggest, it is more about listening. Peter Senge in an interview with Daniel Goleman defined “presence” as being open and aware of others’ input. When you have developed the emotional intelligence to be able to step back and listen empathetically, others will know you’re listening to them and will follow you willingly. It is definitely not about “radiating authority” and "asserting authority"- both are such misguided notions. Authority is given to the leader by the followers, it is not effective if thrust upon them.
    M. Cylkowski