Do you find yourself at that stage in life where you aspire to lead? Accepting and admitting this aspiration can be uncomfortable. Alternatively, do you find yourself presented with opportunities to lead and yet you turn away from them, out of a sense of inadequacy? I know I have. As a writer and creative, stepping into leadership or admitting a desire to lead can be unsettling. From my experience, the desire and call to leadership seemed contradictory to a character of humility, gentleness and servitude, which I had cultivated all my life through my cultural upbringing and my Christian faith. The advice and terms from mainstream literature and motivational talks on leadership did not seem consistent with my personal values and how I wanted to be perceived by others.
Authenticity is when the way we want to be perceived and the way we sincerely want to and choose to behave are indistinguishable.
The term “Executive Presence” trends in the world of leadership coaching as an expression of the appearance, persona and behaviours that one should project as a leader.
In its simplest terms, executive presence is about your ability to inspire confidence — inspiring confidence in your subordinates that you’re the leader they want to follow, inspiring confidence among peers that you’re capable and reliable and, most importantly, inspiring confidence among senior leaders that you have the potential for great achievements. [Gerry Valentine, “Executive Presence: What is it, why you need it and how to get it”, Forbes 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/07/31/executive-presence-what-is-it-why-you-need-it-and-how-to-get-it/#57fe65b86bc7]
I found Executive Presence difficult to develop and portray with sincerity, as changing my wardrobe, styling, speech and posture seem contrived and manipulative, when I still aspire to go about my day-to-day interactions with simplicity, grace and humility. Today I have a different mindset. I’ve been reading, meditating and ruminating on this dilemma of authenticity versus presence for some time, and have concluded that it is much more than being suited and booted. While adjustments to appearance and speech may be resultant, this is not where presence starts.
Leadership is not doing away with grace and humility. In fact, it is cultivating and clothing oneself with these in abundance, as leadership is a response to serve a community’s need, desire and urgency to be led.
A truly authentic “executive” presence starts by renewing one’s mind and realising that leadership is about being self aware without being self-centred. It is about bringing your authentic self and enabling, encouraging and rewarding others to bring theirs. It is about cultivating an “authentic us” that brings value to all, reducing effort and overhead. The best functioning and resilient relationships, communities and systems allow self-regulated autonomy without safety-checks and continuous, hierarchical approval or community consensus. Everyone speaks and acts with permission, confidence and authority, knowing that they are contributing to meaningful goals and objectives based on values that they all share.
Authentic leadership is about being self-aware without being self-centred. Leadership starts when you stop internalising the big challenges and instead issue them to others, along with the belief that they are achievable.
I am learning more and more that the rise to leadership starts when you stop internalising the big challenges and instead issue them to others, along with the belief that they are achievable. It is defining significant endeavours, articulating possibilities and presenting a framework for measuring progress and effectiveness, reflecting aspirations that bring benefit to everyone. It is about bringing, allowing and encouraging authenticity, such that our collective authentic selves becomes the authentic us. It is not about building community and followers — they tend to build, regulate, multiply and cluster on their own — but it is about facilitating and enabling them to thrive and flourish. Leadership does not happen overnight nor does it develop in the dark.
Leadership does not happen overnight nor does it develop in the dark. It requires effort and awareness.
Leadership and presence start with focus and awareness. These are developed by listening and being empathetic to those around you — those whose desire is to be led. Again this may seem uncomfortable, as observing people with the intent of shaping your narrative and behaviours seems manipulative and insincere. That does not have to be the case if we choose to regulate our thoughts and motives, ridding ourselves of manipulative, selfish ambition, choosing to pursue the authentic us when presenting the authentic me. While leadership might result in power and respect, setting that as the goal already erodes presence and authenticity, as any messages of community inspiration will be contrived and only conceived for your own personal ambitions.
Authentic leadership and presence develop as we learn to regulate and reconcile our gut, heart and head. Continuing on in developing a healthy, authentic presence is becoming more acquainted with our own instincts, impulses and triggers. We grow in awareness of what brings us pleasure, pain and outrage, without resorting to automatic, unthoughtful responses. Having control over our instincts and impulses is an ability to withhold the urge to exclusively feed our own pleasures and hoard knowledge and opportunity for ourselves. Moreover, we become open to sharing pain or even accepting personal pain in the pursuit of growth, knowing that personal growth serves the community. We develop an ability to bridge the pathway from anger to action with hope and compassion when our mind considers the impact and interests of the community.
Subsequently, authentic leadership and presence are about managing our emotions and energy well. We all have varying capacities and tolerances for processing community signals and creating community value. We all need those moments of withdrawing and being away from community in order to refresh and serve them better. Authentic presence requires rest and renewal, such that our emotional capacity and energy can be refuelled. This can also come through relationships in smaller circles, including trusted mentors, remembering that as leaders we too desire to be led.
Finally, yes, presence is ultimately manifested through our appearance and behaviours. It is however assessed by the believability, consistency and resilience of what we say and do to change and respond to dynamics in the environment and community. It is speaking and acting with confidence, not because we believe our way is the best and only way, but because we are increasingly supported by stories of change. It stops becoming our word but the testimonies of people in the community. Our speech and actions are driven by authenticity and the knowledge that being vulnerable is valuable. But beware, authenticity and vulnerability are not about spilling your guts and emptying your closet of secrets, struggles and weaknesses. It is not exposing everything about yourself and flooding the airwaves with “look at me” stories. It is about sharing stories when they are helpful and choosing to withhold thoughts and ideas that are not ready or serving the continuation of the authentic us.
In summary, being a leader is nurturing the abilities and propensities to choose to Listen, Empathise, Analyse, Decide, Encourage and Respect even when placed under pressure. It is these qualities in a leader who facilitates the development of the authentic us.
Increase awareness by reading, listening and genuinely wanting to learn more about people’s authentic needs, ideas, concerns and expectations. Understand what it is that people want to without preconceptions, insecurity or deception. Be eager to listen and offer people space to share.
Lead from within the community and establish common ground. Do not allow leadership to be a posture of elevation but become all things to all people. Again this is not about being pretentious, but highlighting commonality of validity, values and vision. Choose to be silent, learn and appreciate in quietness when you have nothing in common, only choosing to speak words that reinforce belonging and worth.
Develop skills for generating valuable insight and creative thinking that is unique and inspiring to the community. Dedicate to presenting insight in thoughtful and exciting ways, which communicate to different types of listeners — emotional, thoughtful and practical.
Ensure to make space and time for thoughtful evaluation. Establish the principles, terms and conditions that define “goodness” in the community, such that decision making is fair and transparent without having to repeatedly replay and walk others through the process.
Even when disappointed in someone, I have found that changing the narrative to one that is reflective and hopeful, rather than condemning, sets them up for growth. Leaders encourage growth and do not cause others to feel insignificant, insufficient or that their mistakes are irrecoverable. Encouraging others reinforces the authentic us.
Finally, the old adage that respect is shown to those who show it is often true. There are examples of leaders who disregard the feelings, opinions and concerns of their followers yet they appear to be adored. This only happens in two cases: either the leader rules with fear and their followers are afraid to voice opinion, or the followers are completely committed to patterning the ways of the leader i.e. a guru-student relationship. Leaders who rule by fear are eventually overthrown and gurus and teachers are for a season. Authentic leadership that continuously grows within and alongside the community comes from a place of humble respect for those being served and led. Signals of mutual respect are clear indicators of being in a community where authenticity thrives — the authentic us.