Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Influence, Leadership, Trust

What is Leadership “Presence”?

While leadership can be characterised as being effective when a few very specific skills or competencies are demonstrated (for example: being goal-oriented, well-organized, and effective at communicating), a less tangible but important aspect that is often overlooked is having a sense of “presence” as a leader. In this brief article we want to look at what it means to have presence. 

As an organisation grows larger not only must key leaders be broadly competent and manage well but they also need to have presence. In other words, they need to show high levels of confidence, be strong in their efforts to steer teams in the right direction and be able to bring people together for a common purpose or goal – both within their own team and when it extends to other teams. This is what we mean by leadership presence because it’s not just a shallow layer that a leader might “wear” (such as being well-dressed or talking in a louder or more confident tone) but something deeper that makes people want to pay attention and be happy to follow that individual. It therefore pays for every organisation to think about what this quality of presence really is and how it might be developed. 

In general, research suggests that most people say that a person has leadership presence when he or she is perceived to be authentic, is deemed to be competent, has natural influence, exudes confidence (even when only listening and not necessarily speaking), and is clear and decisive. Let’s therefore look briefly at each of these characteristics:

  • Authenticity: Authenticity means two things. 1) Not “inventing” a leadership persona, especially one that is false to whom the leader really is. 2) Making sure that words and deeds are consistent. People watch leaders closely for their actions and will perceive more presence and authority when these are authentically aligned.
  • Competence: Although competence will mean different things to each leader, it essentially entails being knowledgeable about the major tasks to be achieved and about the people on the team and what they can and should contribute. This involves a leader being open and having the capacity to ask insightful questions.
  • Influencing ability: Presence is almost impossible to have without good communication skills but counter-intuitively perhaps it also needs good listening skills, so that leaders pay attention when comments are made or questions asked.
  • Confidence: Like influence, confidence is often outwardly shown by effective communication ability and strong body language (and eye contact in particular) but can also be shown when listening closely to understand another person’s view.
  • Clarity and decisiveness: Time and time again people in teams say they like leaders who are decisive and not evasive or procrastinating. 

In summary then, presence is an attribute that is fundamentally about how a leader interacts with others and uses many if not all of the above characteristics much of the time. It is consistently about his or her perceived behaviour and most importantly, how it affects the individual or the team of people who are being led. As such, it is critical that an organisation not only understands the concept of leadership presence (and talks about what it might look like in practice) but spends time and effort to help all of its leaders evolve their skills in this area.

Colin Noyes

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