If you haven’t yet watched Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, please do so (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZNWYqDU948). The content of her words and their political context aside, her delivery of the speech, and the way it has made people around the world sit up, take note and listen, is a great example of that powerful quality called “leadership presence”.
Leadership presence is the trait that enables you to “own a room” or emanate a certain authority, likeability and credibility that compels people to want to listen to and follow you, say Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maigan Wilkens, co-authors of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence (coincidentally, Amy and Muriel were my classmates in business school).
So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how you can enhance your leadership presence.
Amy and Muriel talk about leadership presence in terms of defining your signature voice – it is your authentic approach to communicating and connecting with your stakeholders. It is your distinct way of self-expression. As leaders, it is critical to have a clear, confident and consistent voice that works for you and makes a mark.
Take a look at this video from the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2013/04/improve-your-leadership-presen). Muriel explains that it is important to work on the three aspects of your leadership presence: the assumptions that you bring to every situation, the communication skills that you use, and the physical aspects of your presence, also known as your energy. In an interview with The Washington Post, she suggests that leadership presence is not a static quality but rather a dynamic skill that we need to keep fine-tuning and enhancing:
“While you might have a presence that really works well in one situation or in one role, as you move on to other roles you need to adapt your presence to that situation. What makes you successful in one situation isn’t necessarily what will make you successful in the next…
It’s about broadening your repertoire. It’s like when you play tennis and have a strong forehand—that’s great for your game, but you’ve got to learn how to use your backhand as effectively. I think what has happened with emerging leaders is they have become successful based on their technical skills, but they need to recognize that leadership is not just about technical skills. Soft-skill capabilities are particularly important.”
How can you enhance your leadership presence?
Here are a few effective ways to hone your leadership presence:
1. Own your mindset
Creating a positive mental framework is the first step towards developing your own unique style of leadership presence. After all, it is no secret that confidence is the cornerstone of great leadership, regardless of your personality or leadership style. “”[Leadership is] about doing less and being more,” says Posy Gering, a leadership and personal development coach, and author of The Next You, Discovering Confidence, Calm and Courage—Now.
Gering believes that being more prepared is the blueprint of confidence, which in turn is the foundation for leadership success. But she puts an interesting twist on the concept of preparation, looking at a more holistic meaning: not only do you need to be more knowledgeable and more experienced, (which help you be more confident when you lead), but you also need to prepare your attitude, mind and body.
“That includes being aware of how you feel, managing stress, taking care of yourself physically, and keeping your mind clear so that you’re able to solve problems and recognize opportunities when they arise… The reason you want to do these kinds of practices is that it increases your availability to your task, which is being aware of and solving problems so that other people can do great work.”
2. Pay attention to your body language
We all know that when we are happy we smile, but interestingly, the act of smiling (even when we don’t feel like it) can actually make us feel happier! Albert Mehrabian, psychology professor at UCLA, claims we are perceived in three ways: 55 percent visually (body language), 38 percent vocally (tone of voice) and 7 percent verbally (spoken words). Body language is not only a reflection of our inner state, it can also alter or shape our inner state. In the same way, “warming” up our body language has the power to dramatically boost and shape the perception of our leadership presence, says Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead:
“It’s well known that people won’t always remember what you say, but they will never forget how you make them feel. I’ve found that when I speak with a successful executive, I get the feeling that he or she is wonderful—but when I speak with a charismatic leader, I’m made to feel that I am wonderful!”
Goman points out that this is mostly because of their nonverbal cues such as facing and focusing on the person they are engaging with, making positive eye contact, smiling, and displaying “open postures” such as uncrossed legs and arms, with palms exposed or resting comfortably on the desk or conference table.
Beyond body language and non-verbal cues, appearance can also influence the way people perceive you. You may think it is superficial but human beings are visual. Right or wrong, people tend to make our initial judgment based on what they see. Carrying yourself well, dressing appropriately and being well groomed can help.
3. Just because…
Just as simple shifts in your body language can powerfully impact your leadership presence, so can one simple word: “because”. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this study conducted at Harvard (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201310/the-power-the-word-because-get-people-do-stuff). It found that “because” has the almost-magical ability to enhance your credibility when you communicate—and effective communication is integral to shaping your leadership presence. People like having reasons for doing things, so if you want to inspire change, tell them why. A call to action might be moderately successful; but a call to action that addresses “because” will see a dramatic leap in effectiveness.
4. Change your focus
At your next networking event or meeting, try this exercise, say networking masters Gayle Hallgren-Rezac and Judy Thomson:
“Enter each conversation with the goal of finding something that you can do for the other person. The minute you take the focus off promoting yourself and put it on assisting others, you dramatically improve your ability to connect.”
Creating a connection with your employees, peers and audience is vital to being an effective leader—it makes people believe in and feel a part of your vision and goals.
5. Be present
This last skill is perhaps the most obvious, and it is also perhaps the hardest to do. Genuine leadership presence is about being really and truly present, says Sally Helgesen, author, speaker and leadership development consultant:
“Based on my 25 years of experience working with leaders, I’d suggest that true leadership presence is rooted less in a combination of skills and characteristics than in the capacity to actually be present. That means being present for the moment, for others, for the mission, and for the task at hand. There’s a reason why the words “presence” and “present” have the same root.
But even as it has become more important, being present has become more difficult, thanks to the ubiquity and power of the always-on technologies we use, both to do our work and to manage our personal lives…
The irony is that our quest for efficiency, our desire to leave no task undone, has the ultimate effect of undermining our capacity to be fully engaged by what we do. So even as we work harder and improve our performance, we are eroding our capacity to inspire the trust and confidence required for sustainable success.”
Being present is not an easy task. We need to commit to a person or task fully, without trying to juggle too many things at once. For starters, this means putting away our devices and paying attention. Listen attentively. Show that you care. Being wholly in the moment signals that you respect the other person and their time, that what they have to say is important to you.
So, why not spend some time honing your signature voice? I look forward to your thoughts on how we can become more engaged, authentic and present leaders.