Leadership Presence: Define it, Develop It, and Use It
Leadership presence is and has been a hot topic for a while now. Yet, despite its popularity and widespread use as a term, it remains difficult to pinpoint what leadership presence is.
We know when someone has it – and, on the flipside, when it’s missing. If I were a betting person (and I’m not), I’d take a gamble that you could quickly conjure up an image of both. This tells us that it’s an observable phenomenon. So, let’s unpack this phrase a bit further by (1) defining it, and (2) identifying how we can enhance or improve our presence.
Leadership Presence: What is it really?
Leadership presence is made up of several facets – it’s the ability to take command of a room, assume a leadership role amongst various audiences, share your thinking and opinion with confidence, and strike a balance between talking and listening such that your communication style is both persuasive and impactful.
There’s also an aspect of professionalism and carrying yourself with poise and grace that contributes to leadership presence as well.
Is it the loudest and most boastful person in the room? No. Sure, that person may garner the most attention simply for being the most talkative – but at some point, this approach may become overbearing, and at worst, may turn others off to what you have to say.
As Susan Cain’s work for her group, The Quiet Revolution, points out: Leadership presence does not require one to be extroverted — in fact, several well-known and highly successful professionals self-identify as ‘introverts’ and no one would deny the presence they project (e.g., Warren Buffet, Bill Gates).
It’s often the person who shares their thinking with relative frequency, but in a way that is crisp, concise, and relatable, that really captures the room.
One of the Most Common Leadership Presence Struggles
From our experience with coaching and developing leaders from all walks of life and a variety of different backgrounds, one of the most difficult leadership presence skills to develop is the balance between talking/leading and listening/observing.
More often than not, we see individuals who fall on one side of the spectrum or the other (the talkers or the listeners, if you will).
Why is striking the right balance between listening and talking so difficult? In part, it’s because finding the balance requires a constant reading of the situation and then adjusting to suit it. In other words, the right balance itself isn’t a constant; what’s most effective is always changing.
A leader with impressive presence, needs to be able to:
- Adapt to an audience’s energy level, cadence, and needs. For example, for a less engaged group, a leader needs to be able to rev up the energy, talk more than listen, and lead the conversation; whereas a more engaged, energized group requires more observation and facilitation.
- Have a certain level of situational awareness and be able to read the room quickly.
- Track with the conversation to determine the right approach toward influence. This requires thinking quickly on one’s feet, and reading both verbal and nonverbal cues.
This is quite set of skills and as you can imagine, they are no small task to master.
How can we develop and/or enhance our Leadership Presence?
Strike A Pose
First, let’s turn to Amy Cuddy’s work on ‘power posing’. The idea is that we can develop and enhance our confidence and feelings of power by utilizing body language. She suggests, and her research supports, the premise that our body language can shape others’ perceptions of us while also changing our own body chemistry.
So, one way to develop our presence is to: Engage in power posing prior to an important meeting or presentation. Spend 2-3 minutes standing in a “superhero” pose where you spread your arms and stand with your feet hip width apart. This pose will likely make you feel quite different than if you were to sit in a small position, hunched over, with your arms crossed in front of you.
Try both poses. How did you feel? We suspect that, regardless of what sides of the talking/listening spectrum you generally fall on, adopting a “superhero” posture likely helped you feel more self-assured and confident, whereas the hunched over position may have made you feel less confident (and even timid or quiet).
Follow A Leader
Second, think for a moment about a person (or persons) whom you consider to have a remarkable leadership presence. A person whom you admire and respect, and you suspect (or likely know) that others feel the same.
Spend some time observing this individual. What behaviors do they engage in? What is their communication style like? How do others react to them? When do they talk versus observe?
Jot down some reasons that help explain why they have a strong presence and then consider how you might assume certain elements of their style. Often, we simply need a role model or an exemplar to help us develop our own skills.
Lastly, now that you’ve identified a few ways to enhance your presence, it’s time to put your style to the test. Identify a trusted colleague who will have the opportunity to observe you in key leadership moments.
Set up times to debrief with them after these moments and ask them to provide you with some feedback on your approach. What are you doing really well? What might you continue to tweak and improve upon?
As an aside, a great way to build this type of trusting relationship is to set up a mutually beneficial give-and-take scenario (i.e., ask them how you can serve as a sounding board or feedback-provider to support their development as well).
Is leadership presence something you’ve thought about? How do you know it when you see it?