Executive Presence

You can be smart and persuade some people
or be present and influence everyone.

What is presence and why is it so important to leadership and beyond?

Presence is in the eye and ear and gut of the beholder. When you are totally present in a conversation or in a meeting, others around you perceive you as totally focused on the matter at hand.

This doesn’t mean that you are not purposeful in keeping the matter at hand aligned with you and your company’s mission and near and long term goals. What it does mean is that you don’t have a personal agenda that serves your ambition at the expense of your people and your company. Such an agenda will distract you from being present and in service of others into something personal. And when you come from that you will either try to maneuver or even manipulate someone to do something that is clearly less to their advantage and maybe even less to your company’s advantage than it is to your own self-serving ambitious agenda.

What enables presence is having nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear. Being 100 % other, mission and company focused enables you to have nothing to hide. What obstructs presence is having something to hide such as a personal agenda which may be either to manipulate others to achieve something self-serving or to prevent others from catching you in some wrongdoing.

When you are totally present and aligned with your company’s mission and near and long term goals, people spontaneously trust, have confidence in and respect (see: How Do You Measure Up as a Leader?) you. People may or may not like you (especially if they have an agenda and can’t manipulate you) and people may even like someone who is charismatic more than you. However in that latter case they are confusing being wowed by that person with their actually being present. One of the ways to detect non-present and personal agenda driven people who attempt to wow others off the scent of their real agenda is to look deeply (and I mean deeply) into their eyes. If you do so, you will see that underneath the charisma, they are really figuring how to get you to do what they say without questioning it if they are a leader or buy products or services from them if they are hawking something.

One of the best ways to see how critical being present is to effective leadership is to notice what being absent, distracted, hiding something and/or agenda driven does to people’s ability to trust, respect and have confidence in you. You may get away with it with the "newbies" inside and outside your company, but any discerning person will see right through it and "buy out" instead of "buying in."

The best way to learn to be present and develop presence is to have the experience of someone you respect and admire being present with and for you.  I am fortunate... no, I am blessed... to have that in having as a mentor Warren BennisDavid Gergen has called Warren a "deep listener" and Warren has recently been talking about Saul Bellow who has been described as a "first-class noticer."  When you're with Warren who being one of the preeminent experts on leadership in the world, you are with someone who is hands down more interesting than you.  And yet, when you leave a conversation with Warren, you are the one who feels interesting and dare I say, valuable and worthwhile.  Warren may have expressed it best when he offered me a testimonial for my book, "Just Listen" Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone where he said: "When you get where people are coming from and care about them when you're there, they're more likely to let you influence them."

If you're not fortunate enough to have someone like a Warren Bennis be "present" with you so that you can pay it forward, two of the best tips for being present come from Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE and Wilfred Bion, famed psychoanalyst of the 20th century.

On a number of occasions, Immelt has advised that the best way to get promoted is to focus on what you are doing as if you'll be doing it all of your life (see: Jeff Immelt interview). By that, I think he meant to be totally present and committed to what you're doing and doing it to the best of your ability and to even develop excellence at doing it. When you develop excellence, people are more impressed with that rare ability than what you are excellent at. They will see you as a person capable of excellence and be drawn to that to both utilize you, see what other skills you are excellent at or help you develop excellence in other matters. All of these aid your promotability.

If instead of completely focusing on what you are doing, you are racing ahead to something shinier or to the next best thing, you will not develop excellence. Immelt didn't mention it, but I think he would also agree that in conversations you should have the same focus on listening, comprehending and then understanding the other person to the best of your ability.

Wilfred Bion said that the purest form of listening (and he could have been referring to presence) is to "listen without memory or desire." By that, I believe he meant that when you listen with memory, you have an old agenda that you are trying to plug/maneuver someone into and when you listen with desire, you have a new agenda that you're trying to do the same thing. In neither case are you listening to their agenda and in neither case are you present.

Instead of being absent and listening with an agenda, do your best to be a PAL to others by practicing "Purposeful Agendaless Listening." And what is your purpose? To be of service. And what will be the result? You will be present ... and trusted and respected ... and influential.

Usable Insight: When you listen into the eyes of your people, customers and investors with the sole purpose of alleviating pain and assuaging fear and then do both, they will reveal their hopes and dreams and that's when magic happens.

To learn more about Presence check out Authentic Leadership and True North by Bill George.

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  • Michael Kroth

    Mark, you have really made some excellent points which are excellent food for thought. Peter Senge and his colleagues, as you may know, in their excellent book titled Presence, go into this idea in depth.  One quote for example, "...we began to appreciate presence as deep listening, of being open beyond one's pre-conceptions and historical ways of making sense " seems very congruent with your thinking.  (For how they are working on this topic see their website http://www.presence.net/.)

    From another perspective, being "present" seems even more important for leaders of mobile workers, and we have an entire chapter in our book, Managing the Mobile Workforce http://amzn.to/fkt19c, on the topic which we call Presence: Being There Even When You're Not, where we talk about reducing the distance between the leader and the mobile worker via E-presence, Social Presence, and Leadership Presence.  Looking at this from still another view, would you say that if our political and other leaders would try to be more present as you describe it - in the sense of really seeking that deep understanding from others in order to be of service - especially with those from the other party or who have differing perspectives, that we would be much more likely to develop creative,synergistic, bi-partisan solutions to the challenges we face as a nation and as a world?

    Thanks Mark for identifying and discussing this important topic for leaders of all types - including self leaders working with their families, communities, and co-workers.