How Aware Are You of Your Leadership “Presence”?

How do others experience your leadership “presence”? How do you experience others’ leadership “presence”?

After coaching people in leadership positions for over 30 years, it has been apparent that many of them had a limited or uneven sense of their own leadership “presence” and its impact on others. The result would often be “mixed” or “incongruent” messages to their direct reports, leadership teams and other audiences. Let me provide an example.

One client who was an executive who would always “lean back” from the conference table when speaking to other members of the senior leadership team at their meetings. By leaning back when talking with others, he created a incongruent message of behavioral disengagement right at the moment that he was verbally trying to send a message of engagement. He needed to physically “lean in” to send congruent verbal and behavioral messages. After reviewing this issue in coaching and watching videos of his behavior, he became more self-aware and quickly learned to “lean in” when addressing other leadership team members. This change, along with others, helped him to increase his credibility and standing within the leadership team. Other members would often mimic his gesture by “leaning in” themselves, messaging their own engagement (and often agreement) with him.

In order to identify such incongruent or mixed verbal and non-verbal messages, I usually insist on meeting with a potential coaching client first in person early on and if possible, observing or watching videos of her or him participating in a meeting. Coaches who provide coaching only through virtual means will miss this potentially critical information. It’s also why conducting a 360 developmental assessment of new clients is essential, in that it gathers the perceptions of others in the work environment, identifying what the client does best as well as the distracting and self-defeating behaviors of which they are usually unaware. Here are some components of “leadership presence”:

Body language. In addition to “leaning in” and “leaning out” there are other forms of body language that can send distracting messages:

  • Failing to maintain eye contact with an individual or a group you are addressing.
  • Fidgeting — sends messages of nervousness, distractedness and can irritate others.
  • Over the top body language such as “power poses” advocated by some authors can confuse, distract or even irritate others because they indicate a person is more concerned about self-promotion than in working with others.

Presentation and public speaking skills. This is one of the most obvious areas related to leadership presence, as we are constantly reminded by both positive and negative examples provided by televised coverage of politicians. There are many approaches to improving these skills and most emphasize the integration of several other components of leadership presence. Here’s one good example from

  • Plan appropriately.
  • Practice.
  • Engage with your audience.
  • Pay attention to body language.
  • Think positively.
  • Cope with your nerves.
  • Watch recordings of your speeches.

Listening skills. Poor listening skills indicate a lack of ability to effectively engage with others and usually result in a lack of rapport with others.

  • Failure to use minimal encouragements to talk such as repeating a key word used by the other person as a question, e.g, “Progress?” or “Challenges?”.
  • Not matching the verbal pacing of others (usually by talking too quickly)
  • Failing to paraphrase what others are saying periodically to assure them that you are listening (“It sounds like you had doubts about this project from the beginning”).
  • Not taking the opportunity to verbally reflect back the feelings a person is revealing non-verbally (“So you were upset by the lack of employee participation in this policy change”).

Seating arrangements. Where one sits and with whom can send very strong but subtle messages. Leaders who always sit at the end of a conference table send an “I’m in charge” message, while those sitting in the middle of the long side of a conference table can send a more collaborative message. Some leaders even insist on oval or round conference tables to send a continuing message of shared power and responsibility.

Sitting across from someone at a table can often encourage opposition or conflict, while sitting at the corners of a table or beside someone favors cooperation. If you find yourself often in repeated conflict with someone in meetings, try sitting beside them at the next meeting — you’ll find it’s difficult to argue with someone sitting right next to you. If you try out these seating arrangements, you’ll soon understand why the shape of conference tables and the seating arrangements at them are often a topic of contention when nations meet to discuss conflicts or peace talks.

Use of electronic devices. People are often unaware of how distracting and distracted their behavior can be with mobile devices and laptop computers. A person sitting in a meeting while constantly checking his or her device for incoming email and texts is sending a clear message that their private communications are more important than whatever is taking place in the meeting. When people in leadership position engage in such behavior, they are normalizing it. This behavior is so widespread and disruptive that many organizations have developed engagement agreements for meetings that prohibit the use of phones or other devices with screens while in the meeting room.

Emotional tone and mood. Recently promoted leaders often are surprised when they realize that they are “on stage” all the time — that other employees are very attentive to their mood, energy level, wardrobe, and language. If a leader comes to work in a bad mood and blaming others, this behavior can quickly spread to the people closest to a leader; if this continues over time, the entire workplace climate can be negatively affected.

Outsized influence. New leaders recruited from another organization with differing workplace norms are often unaware of their outsized influence in terms of inadvertently altering an organization’s workplace climate such as informal norms of “business casual” dress, the tone and style of organizational communications, how meetings are conducted and how decisions are made. More competent leaders pay close attention to the norms of behavior they encounter when they enter a new organization and may even ask about these norms directly.

How can you increase awareness of your leadership “presence”? The most effective way for a leader to learn about his or her presence is to ask for feedback, either by working with a leadership coach after a 360 assessment or by asking trusted colleagues for honest feedback. If you choose to start with the latter approach, indicate that you’re trying to become more aware of your leadership presence and impact and are seeking their feedback about how you are doing. If you are trying new behaviors, or eliminating older, less effective ones, tell your trusted colleagues what you are trying to accomplish and also invite their suggestions. People are almost always flattered to be asked for their advice and feedback. Make sure to thank them when they provide it.