Six Moves for Leadership Presence
This is a series of six short messages. Each offers a brief and simple move that you can use to enhance your leadership presence. With practice, each move can become part of a developmental leap into deeper self-awareness and presence as a leader, and a greater ability to be resourceful and resilient under pressure.
Presence is an inner state, often described in terms like alignment, connectedness, flow, resourcefulness, and creativity. Others may experience our presence as authenticity, integrity, or attractiveness.
This series of six brief messages will provide a sampling of moves for developing presence. I considered calling them tools; however, the word "tool" generally connotes something that we use to act on others or on the world.
Here, each move provides a subtle internal means of directing your attention and focus. They are about self-mastery, not about doing something to somebody else. Practicing these moves will enable you to be more present and connected to others, to yourself, and to the range of possibilities that exist in the present moment.
These moves draw from content in my book on presence as a primary means for coaching authentic leaders. While not coaching moves per se, they are central for the self-mastery required to effectively coach, to lead others, and to participate fully in human relationships.*********
|Week One: Stop!
|Week Two: Observe
|Week Three: Center
|Week Four: Orient to Your Values
|Week Five: Frame it Larger
|Week Six: Orient to Your Environment
Week One: Stop!
The first move is "Stop!" Anytime, we can stop the incessant flow of activity and thought in our lives to recognize, in the present moment, the possibility of choice.
Even though it is intellectually obvious that we can choose, most of the time we go through our daily activities without really considering the range of choices available to us. We are, most of us, far more habitual and automatic that we would like to think. We’re preoccupied, going down the tracks of our current activity, thinking about the future or the past.
Stopping, in mid-stream, is the first step towards re-organizing ourselves around what’s important. It’s claiming a moment to make a conscious, unhurried choice about what we want to do or say. Deceptively simple, a "Stop!" is a move into greater self-awareness and pro-activity. It’s akin to your mother telling you to count to 10 before saying anything in anger!
In a moment, when I say, "Stop!" I want you to do just that. Stop reading. Look up from the page. Notice, and realize, that you are completely at choice about when to return to reading. In the moment of stillness that arises in this pause, the future is not yet written. There is no decision already made. Time stops… there is just the potential to read or not read. When you stop, experience this moment free of momentum.
Now, Stop! Wait. See what happens next…. Wait….
What happened? How did you decide to return to reading? Did you get a quick sense of the freedom of that moment?
That moment of timelessness, when the die is not cast for your next word, your next move, your next act… that is presence.
Practice this often during the coming week. You are not trying to replace your activity with a different activity; rather, you’re simply realizing, in the moment, your ability to choose.
Week Two: Self-Observe
I coached a "C" level executive once who was both brilliant and insecure. He was a razor sharp business strategist. However, when anyone questioned him, he interpreted it as lack of confidence in him, and instantly felt defensive and under-confident. This expressed itself as shortness and impatience with others, who understandably became reluctant to disagree or ask tough but important questions.
I invited him to self-observe. To write down, on a daily basis, situations in which this reaction was triggered in him. He paid attention to the nuances of his own experiences with this, becoming intimately familiar with how a rather unhelpful pattern arose. Over time, and with related practices, he became able to recognize when he was going into his habit, interrupt it, and replace it with a different behavior.
Through familiarity comes early recognition. When we are able to recognize an unhelpful habit arising, we can couple it with last week’s move (Stop!) and choose something different!
Choose some habit that you tend to do, and that makes you less effective than you’d like to be. Could be interrupting. Could be giving unsolicited advice. Could be jumping in too fast to care-take others.
Now, observe that habit on a daily basis. Don’t try to change it, or eliminate the habit. Simply become familiar with it. When does this habit show up? What triggers it? What’s the earliest, most subtle sign that the habit is starting to kick in? Where in your body does the first hint of the habit originate? Write down, daily, a brief summary of these observations.
The act of noticing a habit arising provides a moment of choice, a moment of presence in which the future is not yet written. Noticing interrupts the inevitability of habit.
Week Three: Center
One of the best ways to become more present as a leader is to bring your attention into your body. Centering is one way to do this.
I have clients who center when entering their classroom of six-year-olds, leading meetings of people who manage nine figure budgets, and conducting difficult performance reviews. Centering is a core practice for being more present.
A simple version of centering is to observe your posture and your breath. First, re-organize the way you’re holding your body, sensing how you’re supported by gravity. Feel the floor under your feet, and the seat under your rear. Rock first self and right, then front and back, finding the place in the center that feels balanced and straight. Allow your shoulders to drop. Let your jaw relax; allow your eyes to be soft. Straighten your neck on your shoulders, and let your chest open.
Now, notice the sensation of coolness at the tip of your nose as air moves in and out. Notice your chest moving up and down. Sense your abdomen filling and relaxing with each breath. Let your attention be in your belly.
Notice your sense of yourself now. How is it different than before? In this state, how might you interact with others differently?
Experiment with this during the coming week. You can do this anywhere… in a meeting, on a train, in the car, during a conversation. Practice ten times a day, for a minute or two each time. See how your experience of your day is different.
Week Four: Orient to Your Values
We can orient to what is important to us. Shifting our attention changes the context within which we see a particular decision, and can sometimes really clarify what our answer should be.
A client was recently challenged on a project. My client was conflict averse, and strongly tended to keep people around, hoping that they’d turn around. He was struggling with a key management hire that wasn’t working out. His new hire was not moving fast enough on a key element of the project; frustration was building in others.
During this struggle, my client directed his attention to the value he placed both on having a high performing team, and to the significant contribution that this project stood to make. While he was uncomfortable with letting his new manager go, he recognized that the manager was never going to contribute at the level that was needed, and the entire team and project were struggling as a result. His connection to the value he placed on the team and the goals of the project placed the personnel decision into a larger context.
With this new context, my client recognized that it was time to make the change. In fact, the conversation came as a relief to the manager, who had felt a bit like a drowning man with few options. They were able to work out an equitable solution with mutual respect.
Experiment with this. Consider a current situation that’s confusing to you. For the sake of practice, don’t pick a major moral crisis or breakdown!
Simply choose a decision that you face that feels complicated. Pause and identify this situation….
Now, remember what’s important to you in the situation. Consider what values are at stake, and what values are represented by each of the possible options in the situation. Consider how the decision that you make right now is, in fact, an opportunity to live those values. Consider how you might look back from a year out on this decision, and how you might view yourself with hindsight if you choose A, and if you choose B.
Center yourself, per the instructions from Week #3. How does the decision look now? What’s different in your view?
Week Five: Frame it Larger
When we’re locked into a particular view of an interpersonal situation, we are usually convinced we’re right. Unfortunately, the other person is equally convinced that she’s right! Someone once wisely asked, "Would you rather be right or married?" It’s a reasonable question. Yet, giving up our story sometimes kicks in every survival instinct we have.
The authors of the wonderful book, Difficult Conversations, talk about entering such a conversation from the "third story." This requires finding a view of the situation that is neutral, accepting, and larger than either story separately. This new story transcends and includes both the individual stories. Neither person has to be made wrong, and the larger, more inclusive story provides a greater and more presence-based view.
Instead of "You said X and I say Y," the larger view begins with "You and I seem to see this in very different ways, and both of us are convinced we’re right. Yet, we have to come to agreement and move forward. How can we work together to bridge this gap?"
Consider a disagreement that you’ve had recently with someone. What’s your view? What’s the other person’s view? And, how can a larger view describe the overall situation such that no one is made wrong, and the disagreement is framed in a larger context more likely to lead to resolution?
Now, step into that larger view. Reside firmly in it, so that it becomes your felt perspective, rather than simply an intellectual construct. Let this be your truth in the situation.
Presence often results from the instantaneous recognition that a situation is bigger than we thought. There’s always a larger interpretation; finding it frees us from the restrictions of our usual view of a situation, and often reveals new possibilities for action.
Week Six: Orient to the Environment
I am an introvert. I know I’m in an extroverted line of work, and I really enjoy presenting to workshops and large audiences. Still, I really have to work with myself to show up and be authentic in front of an audience. My preference is to hang out at the refreshments table and eat cookies!
My anxiety is always most intense in the half hour before going on stage. Once I’m in it, it’s fun and easy. But, I can suffer during that last thirty minutes!
A helpful way to get myself present, relaxed, and ready is to orient myself to the surroundings. I survey the audience in advance, looking for friendly faces and people I know. I look around the room, noticing the lighting, the details of the décor, where I’m positioned in the room. When I go up on stage, I don’t jump right in. I take a few seconds to survey the audience from the podium, and to see what the room looks like from there. When I begin, I begin in a deliberate way.
This orienting is fundamental a biological process. When we constrict our attention to focus primarily on something that we’re anxious about, that anxiety tends to expand and fill our awareness even more. When we orient to the larger surroundings, our attention relaxes and softens, and the biological organism that is us feels safer, more resourceful, and more ready for whatever comes next.
Practice orienting. Next time you enter a meeting, for example, deliberately scan the room, taking in every person in there, and the surroundings as well. Let yourself relax into the surroundings, feeling that you belong there. See how it changes the feeling of being there.
Or, if you’re coming into a one-on-one conversation that might be challenging, orient yourself before and during the conversation. Let your attention broaden and soften to include other things than the person and agenda that are foremost. It’s not that you’re avoiding the person; you’re simply placing the person and the conversation in a broader context, and perhaps lowering the stakes a little so that you can be more relaxed and more resourceful.