Leadership Presence: The Look of Leadership
Many years ago, a friend of mine was promoted to a position of senior leadership within a large organization. When I congratulated her, she tilted her head to the side and said, “Thank you.” Her physical gesture communicated several things to me: humility, a tinge of being overwhelmed, and even a sense that she might feel undeserving of her new title. The “imposter syndrome”—the concept that some people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and persistently fear being exposed as a “fraud”—can hit hard at such moments. My friend’s body language was betraying her new position. Leaning sideways communicates a lack of confidence. It was time to lean in, modestly but proudly. I gently straightened her head and suggested she hold it high permanently. It was a lesson in leadership presence.
Of all the dispositions presented in Prizmah’s critical new report on day school leadership, none may be more elusive and hard to define than leadership presence, a relatively new buzzword in the universe of leadership literature. There’s no convenient formula to offer for mastery of personal dignity, which undergirds leadership presence and is, in so many ways, ineffable. And yet, even though presence is so much less important in the scale of the other dispositions identified, presence is without a doubt important in helping followers assume and respect competence, skills and educational background. Take one quick look at a leader in an ill-fitting suit, and it’s not hard to imagine the thoughts that cross our minds: Does this person take her job seriously? Does he value education? Is she skilled at what she does? Is he leading well? Why don’t we pay our educators more? Few are those who look totally beyond the trappings to see the richness within.
As Jews and human beings, we are told “dan le-khaf zekhut”—judge everyone with favor—and see beyond appearances. And yet, we also have a category of mar’it ayin in Jewish law, being judged by what others see, that encourages us to be at our best at all times because the visual has impact. Consider any optic of unprofessionalism, even if it seems superficial. Lest we think that these measures are unimportant, we find a striking statement in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 114a): “Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘A Torah scholar on whose clothes a stain is found is liable to receive the death penalty.’” Harsh as it may sound, this sage believed that people who represent leadership can cause others to devalue it if they are not clean in their bearing.
That the look of leadership matters appears as early in the Bible as Israel’s first king. King Saul is described as “an excellent young man; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2-3). While Saul turned out to be a flawed king who lacked some requisite leadership skills, he had something that made him instantly popular. He looked like a king. We get a similar reaction by followers to a later biblical story. When Mordechai finally dressed in royal garb after chapters in sackcloth and ashes, his ancient brothers and sisters were star-struck by his new leadership presence: “Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries” (Esther 8:15). It is as if Mordechai’s clothing alone brought palpable relief and enchantment to the entire capital city.
Dress, voice, posture and something as small as slowing down the speed of one’s conversation, pausing frequently and responding to a question with measure and deliberation, can communicate authority. The common cadence of an upward lilt at the end of a statement so that it sounds like a question can undermine the strength of presence. Throw in a few filler words such as “like” and “whatever,” and a person in a role of authority may instantly seem unpolished for the job.
The magic of presence might best be explained by a fictional character. In the novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a little girl asks an ousted count what one must do to become a princess. The count tells her that a princess must have manners and good posture. Unsure of what posture is, she inquires if posture is good manners. He answers in the affirmative: “A slouching posture tends to suggest a certain laziness of character, as well as a lack of interest in others. Whereas an upright posture can confirm a sense of self-possession, and a quality of engagement.” The count understands that our comportment speaks volumes about ourselves, our attitude towards others and our commitment to our work, especially for those of us who believe that there is something royal and majestic about education.
Those who write on leadership presence point to qualities that are hard to quantify and describe, even if we know them when we see them. Inspiring. Motivating. Energized. Credible. Focused. Confident. Compelling. These are the words Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar (in their book Leadership Presence) identified that people use repeatedly when describing leadership presence. They drill down on the feelings that leadership presence communicates. Leaders with presence are “compelling individuals who attract your attention almost effortlessly. They have something, a magnetism that pulls others to them. When they enter the room, the energy level rises. You perk up, stop what you’re doing, and focus on them. You expect something interesting to happen. It’s as though a spotlight shines on them.”
Think of someone who has this impact on you. Now get beyond the feeling and describe what that individual looks like. How tall does this individual stand, despite actual height? Does the body language used match the message? Is there a sense of gravitas present? What is this person wearing? Does this person use eye contact effectively?
Sustained eye contact is critical in creating leadership presence. It communicates focus, curiosity, transparency and honesty. Leaders who do not work on sustaining eye contact might find that people fidget in their presence, unsure that the leader is interested in what they have to say, making them feel that either who they are or what they have to say is not valued. In his highly practical guide to communication, Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond, Jay Sullivan recommends dismissing the advice to scan the room when speaking publicly. Looking at everyone means looking at no one. He advises, instead, to focus each sentence on one person at a time and move the eyes accordingly. Yet at the same time, too much sustained eye contact can also feel disarming and uncomfortable. Leaders achieve presence with their eyes when they identify the sweet spot of engagement in each interaction. It takes time to cultivate that skill.
Some might believe that these skills are far less important than the title on one’s business card. Yet leadership presence is not only about the position a person has but also about the way he or she leverages that position in a very personal way. A scholar of organizational psychology makes an important distinction between personal and positional leadership:
Leading…is not primarily about doing something, but rather about being something. The development of leadership is about becoming conscious of both the power within oneself and the power inherent within the position one holds. In a fundamental sense, the challenge of being a leader is about integrating personal power with one’s positional power. (David T. Kyle, The Four Powers of Leadership)
Leadership presence is like a signature; it’s a highly personal style that communicates an interweaving of dignity, warmth and seriousness of purpose. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) observes, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” Presence has impact. People are not born with presence. They develop it over time with the onset of greater confidence in position. Leaders can expedite the process, however, by identifying and studying those with strong leadership presence until developing a presence that is uniquely personal. Practice might not make perfect, but practice can make presence.