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Lessons Learned

The 4 Habits Every Great Leader Needs To Practice

"Presence" isn't a persona or an aura of authority. It's what you do, day in and day out.

[Photo: Flickr user Nick Kenrick]

You don't need to be told that leadership takes presence. But in my experience, leaders today have arguably fewer opportunities to show it.

Particularly if you head up a digital business or lead teams spread out across multiple locations, you're faced with generating "remote" influence at the same time that the people right there in your own office need to be kept motivated, too.

While I’ve always been pretty outgoing, it took me some time to create the kind of leadership presence that could inspire the people who work at my company—and it's always a work in progress, especially as the daily features of modern business crowd in. I used to get frustrated, for instance, when employees texted me about something I thought they could easily figure out. I felt I deserved an office.

But over time, I've learned that some of those habits were just my pride or personality getting in the way of my real priorities as a leader. I discovered that if I learned what my team truly needed from me, I could impact them greater by giving back. These are the four habits that I've found helpful for building my leadership presence in a way that's meaningful, effective, and consistent.

1. Spending Time In The Trenches

You don't need to be a distant figure to project authority. Actually, you probably shouldn't be. You don't really want your employees' dumbstruck awe and reverence, after all—you want their dedication, commitment, and creativity.

Since I like to be in the middle of the action, this has suited my personality well. I like to know what everyone else is doing and thinking and what they're working on—without turning into a micromanager. I've discovered that wanting to know those things is all about being interested in the individual as a person, not as an employee. And that simple habit can serve leaders well whether they're managing remote teams for employees who are right there in front of them.

Your own sense of your presence as a leader won't mean much if your employees find you inaccessible. When team members reach out on Skype or feel comfortable walking right up to share an idea with you, you'll know you're getting this right.

2. Being "All There"—Authentically

Being present is more than just a persona or a level of accessibility, though, There are many leaders running around with their sleeves rolled up, but they may not necessarily be "present" and engaged in what they're doing. It’s easy to tell when that's the case—they sort of look like the lights are on but no one is home.

We like to talk ourselves hoarse about "employee engagement," but we seldom use the same terms to discuss leadership. For me, being engaged means letting the other person know that I’m actively listening and interested. I try to ask questions and offer encouraging words when I see they've really delivered on something.

But you can't fake this. This type of real-time, one-on-one interaction has to be authentic to the person observing it or it’s just not real presence. Being "all there" isn't just something to focus on when discussing work projects, though. I go to lunch with my employees, plan some fun days outside the office, or just join them on their walks during breaks. It's in these informal situations that I often feel I can connect most authentically.

After all, your presence as a leader can't just arise during the heat of battle—you need to build relationships during the calm, enjoyable moments where your team members are likely to feel relaxed, open up, and share what’s on their mind.

3. Mastering The Arts Of Conversation And Storytelling

For me, being enthusiastically conversational comes naturally. But I'm a talker—and the art of conversation takes more than just dominating the discussion. Instead, it means listening and asking questions without interrupting.

I've had to learn more about the value of body language—not only my own, but also being able to tun into what others' postures, expressions, and gestures are subtly telling me. These easy-to-miss conversational cues can often tell you more accurately what somebody's really thinking.

I also like to share stories with my team because it’s an easier way for me to get my point across. And speaking of "engagement," you'll probably get more of it, more naturally when you use laughter and a lively narrative.

That can be key for remote teams. When it comes to my remote staff, I make sure to regularly check in and have a quick exchange so they feel involved and know that I’m interested in what they are doing. And there's always room for chitchat—it's never all business all the time.

4. Showing You Care Without Being Showy

Leaders who are truly present don't keep their emotional distance. If anything, this diminishes any sense of presence by preventing a real, human connection from taking place. I’ve found it's especially important for me to convey warmth and concern to those who don't see me interact with others in the office everyday—those only communicate with me by phone, Skype, or chat.

Maybe it's a special birthday gift or encouraging somebody to take the rest of the day off because of a personal situation—whatever the occasion, I try and let everyone know that I know they're people with their own lives, concerns, and stresses. What's more, you don't have to let them know this loudly—you do it through actions, one person at a time.

None of these leadership skills can be developed overnight. I've struggled with all of them. It's taken me considerable practice and testing to see what actions are best received by my employees. Plus, once I’ve established these behaviors, it's never meant I could switch on autopilot from that point forward.

Because presence isn't about your persona or your bearing. It's about what you do each day. And actions need to be taken—repeatedly, deliberately, and with a constant eye to their results. Presence, in other words, takes practice.

John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor, online marketing guru, and startup enthusiast. He is the founder of the online payments company Due. Follow John on Twitter at @johnrampton.

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