In times of crisis people always look for inspirational leaders. What makes for inspiration is subjective, but there is one common element when speaking about leaders who inspire: they have a strong leadership presence.
By presence we mean “earned authority.” That is, people follow your leadership because you are a proven quantity, whose credibility rests on your having gotten things done. Every leader must aspire to demonstrate presence in order to inspire; this is a theme I explore in my new book, 12 Steps to Power Presence: How Leaders Assert their Authority to Lead.
Let me outline a few key points:
Know the score. Executives who talk a good game may appear to have presence but what they really have is a silver tongue. If you seek to inspire, you need a deep knowledge of the situation. Communication that directs people to strive for big goals must be reinforced with a process and with information that support achieving those goals, otherwise it is just empty rhetoric. Leaders with presence know their business.
Radiate command. A leader with presence wears authority like a well-tailored suit. Others notice the good fit and feel comfortable in her presence. A leader who cannot radiate authority is one that will struggle to create followership. Authority stems from strong self-awareness; leaders with command presence are confident because they know what they are capable of achieving by themselves and through others.
Leaders can sometimes communicate more without words than with them. What matters is poise and conviction.
That came to mind as I watched Kevin Bacon’s performance in Taking Chance, an HBO movie based upon Lt. Col. Mike Strobl’s moving account of escorting a slain Marine, Lance Corporal Chase Phelps, to his final resting place in Wyoming. While Bacon has the lead role, it seems he has no more than 10 pages of dialogue to deliver and most of that in one to two sentences at a time. Without the benefit of words we see the compassion he bears for the young Marine, the conflict he undergoes because he is not in combat himself, and the strong bond for service he carries.
What Bacon’s performance reminds us is that a leader need not always use words to convey meaning; non-verbal cues often say more than words can ever do. Unfortunately, too often non-verbal cues are displayed to the wrong effect, that is, to display distraction, disregard or even distaste. Those in charge, especially those in very senior positions, must be careful not only with their words but with their body language. Here are some suggestions.
Relax your facial muscles. I once worked with a talented engineer who had a real affinity for teaching others; it was something he enjoyed doing. But since he was new to his firm, people didn’t know him and when they saw him they would see him in his office with his face scrunched up and seeming very intense. His body language said, “Stay away!” In reality he was deep in concentration but with people he could be engaging. He worked on reminding himself to relax his facial muscles. When he did so, he seemed more approachable, and as such was able to connect better with his new colleagues. (Yes, you can practice relaxing your facial muscles by looking in a mirror. This is not vanity.)
Leaders are always judged by others. The higher their profile the bigger the stage, and their words and their actions are magnified by the roles they hold.
X-factors are comprised of many things that work individually — and collectively — to help the leader. These include ambition, creativity, humor and compassion, as well as three more words that begin with “C” — character, courage and confidence. X-factors strengthen the leader’s commitment to doing what’s best for the team and the organization.
The sum of your X-factors attributes give you the foundation to do what you do better than anything else. It also lays a foundation of trust.
Trust is the bedrock upon which you build followership.
The other day a senior executive with whom I was working told me that one thing he strove to do was turn “make work” projects into “make work for you” activities. One example: the performance review. For too many organizations, performance reviews are onerous activities that managers and direct reports go through because they have to, not because it adds value to the organization.
The opposite was true with this executive’s company, where performance reviews were tied explicitly to performance metrics themselves tied to corporate objectives. His company had managed to keep the review from becoming another pro forma exercise.
This lesson has merit for every manager struggling to optimize operations, especially at a time when managers are continually challenged to do more with less — fewer people, fewer resources, and less time. Sometimes you can find points of leverage by finding ways to turn what some perceive as useless activities into productive ones.
Here are some suggestions.
Itemize what you do. Do a task assessment to identify how people are really spending their time. They may be working hard, but are they doing what the team needs them to do? How much time are they spending on processes — and which processes? Sometimes we are so busy with tasks that we lose sight of the big picture.
There is one advantage that quiet people have over those of us who like to hear the sounds of our own voices. They are good observers.
This is a point that actor Liev Schreiber made about the title character he plays on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” During an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Schreiber said that Donovan’s character, who in Dave Davies’ words “doesn’t say much,” instead spends time taking things in. That is, he listens to what people tell him.
A quiet leader is one who values his own strengths but also has the ability to see the world as others do for one simple reason. Such leaders listen. Knowing how another thinks is essential to persuasion.
Speaking less and listening more is a good exercise for any leaders. It’s an advantage that introverts may have but it is a learned behavior that extroverts can make it work for them.
If you want to lead others, you need to get comfortable with the concept of power. In my experience, emerging leaders sometimes stumble over the use of power for one of two reasons. Either they are too comfortable with it and wield it ruthlessly, or they are so fearful of it they avoid it completely.
Leaders must strike a balance. “The sole purpose of power,” as the great 17th century Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracián wrote, “is to do good.” That is as an effective approach because it gets to the nature of what leaders must do: achieve positive results for the organization.
This prescription may be altruistic, but it is not a prescription for avoiding the tough issues. Leaders must often make decisions that will cause pain to individuals, but those decisions should always be undertaken with the intention of helping the organization succeed.
Using power appropriately is the secret to leading effectively. Here are some suggestions (adapted from my book) on how leaders can apply power to enhance their ability to get things done — and done right.
There isn’t much good that has come out of the Great Recession to date except the humbling of some big egos on Wall Street. However, there might be one small benefit that I’ve noticed after doing some coaching with executives pondering next steps in their careers.
Being out of work has forced highly capable men and women professionals to consider what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Some, due to financial pressures, need to get back to work immediately — and so are ready, willing and able to take a job, any job that comes their way. But a good many others, particularly those with more than two decades in the workforce, have an opportunity that has not occurred to them since college: The chance to ask themselves, again, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
To answer this question, you need to do some homework… on yourself. The five questions below will prompt responses that challenge your assumptions about the way you live your life now — and the way you want to lead it from now on.
Where do your talents lie? Talent is a mixture of ability and proclivity. You have a capacity to do certain things, whether it’s think creatively or keeping a disciplined schedule. At the same time, you have preferences such as working independently, collaborating in teams, or leading projects. Some talents are evident in youth, others emerge over time in the workplace. Recognizing both your abilities and proclivities is essential to your personal growth.
Major change initiatives may bubble up from the ranks, but their success depends upon the advocacy of those at the top. Winning those folks to your side is essential, but it’s not enough. You have to make your influence felt one on one, person to person.
Get involved where you can have the most positive impact.
As a change agent, your challenge is to integrate your way of thinking into the organization in ways that do not threaten individuals but rather complement the goals and strategies of the organization.