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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

5 skills every leader needs to master to improve their presence

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Maja Djikic

Presence is the great X-factor of business communication. Do people feel they can trust us, that we care, that they are encouraged and supported; or do they feel distance, and assume suspect motivations before any words are spoken? Leaders who have a caring and trustworthy presence have a great advantage in dealing with the complexities of organizational life. Their presence frames every difficult conversation and every complex interpersonal interaction.

In everyday life we call presence by many names — charisma, allure, magnetism, appeal — yet presence is neither magical nor an inborn quality. Rather, it is built by developing ourselves, and letting ourselves be seen by others. Below are the five skills that lead to a strong leadership presence.

  1. Attention: Our face, voice and body reflect what is on our minds. If we are in a work meeting, but still upset about a problem from the previous meeting, those we sit with will assume we are worried or disturbed by them. What we think of as a “resting” face is really a “thinking” face. It reflects whatever we are thinking about. This means that a strong presence requires our attention always to be on what is in front of us. This includes the meetings where we are only listening. As leaders, even when listening, we are “doing” something to the speaker; either encouraging them with our full attention or telling them they are not worth it. This is the case even with virtual meetings. Anyone who is not mentally in the room perhaps doesn’t need to be there in the first place. Leaders with strong presence can bring their full attention to those in front of them, and that is motivating and encouraging.
  2. Congruence: Another thing we look for in leaders is whether we can trust them. More than words, we unconsciously evaluate trustworthiness based on the congruence of different expressive channels: when the person’s mouth is smiling, are their eyes smiling too, or are they cold? Are the person’s gestures robotic or move naturally? Does the voice sound scripted or natural? Do they look scared, angry or at ease? What we are looking for, often under the name “authenticity,” is whether the person before us is trying to hide or mask something about themselves. If so, they can’t be trusted. This is why the “poker face” — which many executives believe is the most efficient way of keeping their thoughts and emotions invisible to others — invokes indifference or fear, but not trust. Leaders with strong presence don’t hide behind masks, but are willing to be themselves and seen as such, which brings trust, and help those around them have the courage to be their authentic selves too.
  3. Integrity: The reason many leaders hide behind masks is that authenticity makes our inner conflicts visible. All different parts of the self — our behaviours, thoughts, emotions, and motivations — can pull us in different directions. If we say one thing but believe another or if we have conflicting motivations, it leads to inner fragmenting. Like a glass jar that is dropped, we break and lose our wholeness or integrity. Unless we work on becoming whole, we will be afraid to be seen, to show ourselves to others. Leaders with strong presence work on ensuring all parts of themselves are moving in one direction. They say what they want, what they feel and believe, and act accordingly. They have inner integrity that gives their words and action power, and that inspires all who surround them.
  4. Benevolence: Humans, like all other animals, have a long history of accurately perceiving the motivations of other animals at a distance. We don’t need to receive a verbal or written threat to feel in danger. We can rapidly read social situations and make unconscious assessments of what we can expect from others. We use the same kind of assessments when we look at our leaders. A crucial motivation we look for is an ability to keep in mind the interests of other people (including us) when making decisions. Will this be the kind of a leader who will keep us, our career progression, our development, our finances, in mind when making decisions? If we believe that they will just look out for themselves, it won’t matter how attentive, authentic, and “whole,” they are. We won’t trust them to lead us. Benevolence, or keeping our interests in mind when making decisions, is what allows us to trust, follow, and work hard for leaders who we know work hard for us.
  5. Humility: No one gets it right all the time. Even when we rise to leadership, we stay human, and vulnerable to lapses in attention, authenticity, integrity and motivation. Leaders need humility to know that they are vulnerable to making bad decisions and that their inner life can shake and crumble under intense pressure and the limelight of leadership. History is full of leaders soaring to unseen highs only to plunge into the darkness of cruelty, narcissism and even criminality. Knowing that life and power can start changing us in dark ways, helps us to keep focused on the inner work of self-development. For leaders, a strong presence is not something they “get and keep,” but the outer expression of their inner life, and as such something requiring constant labour and care.

Leaders’ presence is not some magical charisma, but an end result of the inner quality of being that shines through them to all of us. Leaders who are in the moment with us, are brave enough to show themselves, are not fragmented by inner conflict, and are benevolent enough to keep our interests in mind — these are persons worth following and learning from. 

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Maja Djikic is an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management and the director of self-development laboratory at the Rotman School of Management