Debunking Leadership Presence

Presence is a common leadership development theme in executive coaching. I have often wondered why it comes up so frequently and why we struggle to define it adequately.

What I have learnt through my coaching work is that rather than provide a precise definition, I ask the coachee and their line manager what they understand it to be. They invariably come up with a wide range of views.

Their most common response is that presence equates to charisma.  And herein lies the problem in my opinion, charismatic people account for less than 5% of the population and their personality, charm and looks (some of the key ingredients of charisma) are innate qualities they are born with. Presence, however, is developed over time and can sometimes be overlooked (particularly in the shadow of charisma) but whose impact lingers on.

The solution I believe lies in taking a broader definition of presence to include characteristics such as accountability, collaboration and development of others to name a few. John Baldoni, author of 12 Steps to Power Presence and HBR blogger adds another one: earned authority. As he says in his blog post on the topic, you may have a title, but you need to earn the respect and trust of your coworkers. Presence is rooted in fundamental competence. In my view, the combination of all these characteristics points to a strong sense of self or self-actualisation.

Like leadership, there is no one way to do presence.  In my view, the quietest person in a group can have the greatest impact by contributing what needs to be done, saying what is unsaid, and being a container of calm. This wider definition points to the fact that leadership presence is a very personal attribute which we all need to find within ourselves and work on over time.

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