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How to Cultivate Leadership Presence

In our rapidly changing world, new pressures are emerging. To navigate more demanding customer expectations, an acute distrust of business and so much remote working, leaders need to find new ways of operating. Cultivating leadership presence is foundational for this to happen.

With deeper presence, a leader is able to remain centered when facing unexpected disruptions, be open to new directions and build trusting relationships. People follow people. Leaders who are grounded in who they are, what they stand for and what really matters take others with them.

What leadership presence is

When was a time that you became so immersed in what you were doing that you lost a sense of time? You might have been reading a novel, talking with a colleague or writing a report; any activity that requires focused concentration can take us there. Already you’ve had a taste of this capacity.

When we operate from a sense of our presence, we are in a state of absorbed relaxation. There is a feeling of spaciousness or ‘flow’ inside us. Afterwards, when we look back, we realize that we’d been totally ‘there’ and in touch with our best self.

When we are present, we are right here, right now. All our attention is focused in this moment. If we’re in a meeting, we’re attentive; we’re not thinking about our emails, ‘to do’ list or other distractions. We stay in contact with what’s happening in the room, as well as what’s going on inside us. We don’t try to control or manipulate others but allow them space to be themselves, just as we are being ourselves. Other people are attracted by this expansive energy and want to draw closer.

Why developing presence matters

There are several benefits to cultivating presence and building trusting relationships is chief among them.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, attributes the sustained success of the company to its operating principle of ‘values create value’. In an interview for Fortune, Benioff states: ‘If trust isn’t your highest value, the employees will walk out… Customers will walk out, investors will walk out and leaders will walk out, and you’re seeing more of that everyday.’[1]

Deepening presence reduces the risk of ‘acting out.’ When a leader yells at others or humiliates them, it damages relationships. Retrenchment after the event can lead to feelings of shame or, at the other extreme, stubbornness that “I was right!” Wasted energy and lost potential are the result.

Dealing with reactivity is key. Whilst lashing out at others provides a short-term release of pent-up energy, it pollutes the atmosphere. No one wants to work for a leader who ‘throws their toys out of the pram’ or withdraws into a sulky silence. When a button inside of us gets pushed, it’s an opportunity to pause, reflect and search inside ourselves so that the button loses its charge.

How to become more present

With the intensity of working online, it is particularly important to find ways of consciously managing your attention. Here are some things to try (whether on Zoom or in person) so that you stay energised as well as engage your co-workers.

1. Before a meeting

Take a few moments to become present. Find a quiet space where you can close your eyes, scan your body and notice what you’re feeling. Pay particular attention to any signs of stress that you sense. Breathe into this part of your body to help to release any tension.

Put away your phone (unless you need it to be logged onto a meeting or for a call.) Keep it out of sight so that you’re less likely to swivel your attention in its direction. The people you’re with will feel more valued if they’re not competing for your attention.

2. During a meeting

Stay in touch with your own body as you interact with others. Feel your feet on the ground, your backside in the chair and your spine sitting upright.

Notice yourself breathing in and out. If you’re able to, lightly place your hand on your stomach to help you to stay connected with this “belly breath.” When you notice that you’ve “jumped” out of yourself or lost touch with you sense of self, focus again on your breathing.

Maintain eye contact when another person is speaking. On screen, move your eye gaze between looking directly at the camera (so that the other person feels you’re looking directly at them) and looking at their image on the screen. This conscious ‘shuttling’ helps to keep your mind from wandering. It communicates to the other that they have your full attention.

If you’re not able to give other people your full attention, say so. It is better to say, “I know you need to talk with me and I’m interested, but I want to give you my undivided attention” than to be in a semi-distracted state. Take care of what you need to and then return to the conversation.

3. After a meeting

Carve out whatever space you can between meetings rather than rushing from one to the next. Even a short break of a few minutes helps to clear your mind and reduce “attention residue” (continuing to think about one issue when you need to pivot to the next.)

If it’s possible to stand outside or open a window, even for a few seconds, the fresh air will help to keep your attention focused in the here-and-now.

At the end of a meeting, jot down any actions or decisions that were taken so that these don’t remain as ‘open loops’ in your mind, which have been shown to consume a disproportionate amount of energy. Close your ‘loops’ from one meeting before you head to or log into the next.

In closing

When we are present, we see opportunities and identify risks that we miss when we’re only half there. In a state of presence, we are open to fresh insights and ‘action impulses’ that take us forward.

Our presence – so simple, so basic and yet so rare – is what creates the most impact when someone walks into the room, whether in person or on Zoom. Great leaders have it and you can too. Presence is available to us each moment. Cultivating presence will greatly enhance the quality of your leadership and life.


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