Leadership Presence

In Self-Management

By Maura Fay Learning

There’s so much discussion of leadership and sometimes defining what it actually means is kind of like catching smoke. Does leadership mean that you are in a position of power over others? In which case people are compelled to follow you whether you are inspiring or not? Or does leadership mean that you inspire people to want to follow you through your personal attributes: your behaviour, your integrity, the way you manage yourself and your relationships?

True leadership is the latter of those: a leader inspires people to follow. If you’ve seen the video on The First Follower[1] (search YouTube for ‘First Follower’ or follow the link below) it’s a clear indication that being inspired is what gets that first follower going, not being forced. So inspiring isn’t something that comes with your job title, no matter how important your title might sound.

Being inspiring comes from your leadership presence: how you present yourself to the world, how you deal with people, how you treat them, how you manage yourself, how you behave every moment of every day. Your leadership presence is your personal brand – a personal brand that inspires the people around you. Your leadership brand is the result of behaving like a leader whether your job role has you as a people manager or an individual team player. Leaders can be anywhere in an organisation, and sometimes it can actually be the unofficial leaders that have the strongest following. But when gravitas and inspiring leadership come from the top of an organisation, and from the senior ranks, then the sky is the limit in engaging performance to meet the organisation’s goals.

There are a myriad of tangible behaviours that help to build a strong leadership presence. Here are a few of my favourites.

Leaders play above the line

The Oz Principle’s Above the Line model that encourages us to take Ownership, Accountability and Responsibility – instead of Blaming, Making Excuses or Denying, is my number one. When things go wrong, leaders don’t look to shift the blame, they don’t even look to place any blame. They front up, bravely admit their role in creating the problem, and then become a driving part of the solution i.e. they focus on how to fix whatever happened; and then they learn from their mistakes. Admitting mistakes and taking accountability for fixing the consequences are key leadership behaviours.

Leaders are authentic

Amazing how we can pick a fraud. It’s like we’ve all been trained by that lie-detecting guy on the TV a few years back. Your non-verbal communication will be shouting loudly and drowning out a lot of what you say if the two don’t match. And your actions will drown out your words even more if you are not ‘walking the talk’.

Leaders see their leadership presence as a by-product of who they are

A leadership presence is authentic, it doesn’t just exist because people are ‘grooming their brand’. In fact grooming your brand, hard-selling yourself, never seems to land particularly well, especially in Australia. Make the real you as good as it can be, then be the real you, allow the real you to show through, and keep continuously improving the real you. Be assertive and confident that you add value, and you will.

Leaders inspire trust – and they don’t blow it

Trust is the basis for human relationships inside and outside of the business context. If people can trust you then your behaviour is more likely to be perceived positively, your vision is more likely to appeal and engage, your lead is more likely to be followed. And your mistakes or foibles are more likely to be better tolerated (yes, you do have them).

Leaders are someone that people enjoy being around

An optimistic outlook, a ‘glass-half-full’ response to the world around you, is a critical part of leadership presence. It means having the resilience to roll with the punches, to manage oneself through change, disruption or the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that the workplace sends our way. Leaders support themselves and support others when the going gets tough. ‘The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where [s]he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where [s]he stands at times of challenge and controversy’ Martin Luther King Jnr.

Leaders are inclusive and respectful – they build people up

Leaders understand that people are different. In fact they celebrate the differences and welcome diversity because they know that variety is a building block of a high performing team. Leaders are self-aware enough to see their own less-polished areas that could be in need of development, and they respect that other people have abilities that they themselves do not. They don’t feel threatened by being out-performed in a key capability, because life is not a competition, they say, it’s a collaboration to achieve a win-win. Leaders know that to achieve high performance, to meet the organisation’s goals, they need to encourage variety. If they have a whole lotta yin, they go looking for some yang.

Leaders have one face – they flex it but don’t change it

Leaders look to build rapport with everyone they interact with. How? Through flexing their communication behaviours to more closely resemble the other person and thereby make them feel more comfortable in the conversation. Especially those powerful non-verbals. But leaders never lose sight of their own integrity, stay true to their personal core values, and don’t talk negatively behind people’s backs. Criticism is expressed as constructive feedback to a person’s face, not as complaining behind their back.

Notice that in all of the above behaviours, we’re not actually ‘working on our leadership presence’. We’re working on our behaviours. When we look at our own leadership presence, it’s like it’s in our peripheral vision; it’s a consequence of our behaviours. We don’t work directly on it, we work on our leadership behaviours, which in turn strengthen the brand that is us as leader. Your leadership presence is in the eye of the beholder – and they are watching your every move.

And one more bit of advice. It’s a 24/7 thing, we don’t get time out for good behaviour. One small step into the non-leadership-presence zone can undo months of truly inspiring leadership behaviour. You may be an individual team member or CEO, either way ensuring that your leadership delivers daily on the behaviours above will turn you into a truly present leader.


Our upcoming breakfast covers the topic of Leadership Presence. Join us in Brisbane on the 25th October.

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