The Myths of Leadership Presence

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Some people radiate power – not through sheer force, but with an aura of confidence and authority. A commonly cited example is Bill Clinton. As relayed by Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact, Michael had a friend who despised Bill Clinton. When this friend was introduced to Clinton at a party,

…all of my friend’s personal animosity towards Clinton disappeared, in one instant. As they were shaking hands, Clinton made eye contact with my friend in a way so powerful and intimate, my friend felt as though the two of them were the only people in the room.

A strong presence has this effect. You can feel the room change when these leaders enter – they bring energy and engagement. But as much as we talk about presence, there are common myths all presence-seeking leaders should heed.

Myth 1: You can replicate leadership presence

Growing up, I revered Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli from the show Happy Days. He was (and, I’d argue, remains) one of the coolest people I’d ever seen. The way he could control a room with his poise and self-assurance was what I wanted to be. So I followed the popular idiom, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I slicked back my hair, wore a leather jacket, and attempted to emulate the Fonz’s unflappable coolness.

It turns out that what works for a biker from a sitcom based in the 1950s doesn’t translate to a ten year old in the 1980s. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to learn this lesson. Once I did, I understood that the Fonz’s presence worked for him, not for everyone else.

The exhibition of presence must be authentic. This is not the case when we are trying to be someone else. We can learn from those we admire, maybe pick up a few do’s and don’ts, but it is on each of us to find a style and approach that works.

Myth 2: Presence is all about the first impression

Some leaders are masters of the introduction. I remember the first time I met Mr. C, a CEO with whom I eventually worked. The entire exchange lasted no more than three minutes, but it remains one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. Mr. C immediately took charge of the conversation almost before it began. He seemed sincerely interested, asking astute question, making complimentary observations and adding personal tidbits. I thought this quick conversation was a precedent for our future relationship. I was wrong.

The more I got to know Mr. C, the more his charming presence wore off. What I mistook for genuine interest was really his way of manipulating people. When I became disillusioned with the stark differences between his public and private personas, he continued to have a strong presence, but it was not a positive one.

True leadership presence is not a parlor trick. As found in Dr. Dagley’s 2013 study, the most common characteristic when defining long-term presence in leaders is values-in-action. This includes being trustworthy and displaying a deep respect for integrity. If we can maintain this, enduring presence is within our grasp.

Myth 3: Presence = Charisma

You know that guy who’s at the center of every party? He regales the crowd with amusing stories, provocative quips and snappy one-liners. On Monday morning, you see him in the break room using the same skills to charm his co-workers. Party guy has presence-light – it’s like normal presence only with half the calories and none of the gravitas.

While a leader’s presence involves the ability to communicate and connect with others, it must also include substance and credibility. It’s not enough that you have tight bonds with staff over your favorite football team; the element of presence means you demonstrate your intellect and expertise.

When others respect your knowledge, they are more likely to listen to your ideas. You’ll earn their trust and respect faster and garner a more loyal following – the true signs of effective presence. And with a reputation of competence and outcome delivery, your presence is present even when you are not.

Building leadership presence can be overwhelming. That’s why we cannot compare ourselves to the Bill Clintons or Fonzarellis of the world. Take the time to find your optimal presence. Start with being yourself. Then add integrity and competence. If you’re doing this already, the best shortcut I can offer is to put a significant amount of time into treating others with respect. It’s not glamorous, but it’s the most effective way to pronounce your presence.

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