It’s hard to say exactly what presence is, but when it comes to leaders, we know it when we see it. How do you learn to boost your presence, especially if your style is more introverted?
When I accepted a position as a library director, it marked my first opportunity to take the helm of a library organization. I had full confidence in my ability to lead the library forward into the future, and help it make a successful transition into the digital world. The responsibilities for planning, budgeting, technology, and managing presented few concerns; I believed I was well prepared to lead in all these areas. There was only one matter that truly had me feeling less secure in my abilities, and it was something I could hardly explain myself. For lack of a better way to describe it, I could only say that I was less certain about my capacity for being “directorly.” At the time it was just this vague worry that I would fail at carrying and conducting myself in a manner expected of a library director and academic administrator. Although this sounds rather silly, it was a genuine concern, and when I joined the College Library Directors Mentoring Program, I learned that others felt the same way, and that none of us new library directors knew exactly what to do about it.
Demonstrating “leaderly” ways
What we were feeling might be described by some as a variation of “imposter syndrome.” As new library directors we were confident in our hard skills and most of the soft ones the job would require, but worried that we were truly ill equipped for these positions in at least one important way and that we’d be found out as imposters just masquerading as library directors. With many years of experience since then, and a desire to better understand what I was feeling and how to cope with it, I now realize what I was feeling is something that is a challenge for leaders across all areas of business and education. Call it the “presence problem.” Thinking of great leaders from all time periods and areas, we can easily recall or identify those whose presence has captured our imagination, attention, and loyalty. They all had that one thing in common: Presence. They command the room. They say the right things. They create emotional connections. People get them. Want to be them—or associated with them. How do they do it?
It would be correct to say these leaders all have a certain charisma, and that is an important ingredient if you desire to inspire followers. I think it is more than that, though. There are many charismatic individuals, but not all demonstrate leadership presence. Many of the great leaders have experienced a crucible moment that has shaped their capacity to have the confidence to lead, whether it’s commanding a room, sharing a vision, or leading us through a time of crisis. The moments are discussed in the book titled Crucibles of Leadership. The author states that crucibles “are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.” Not just mere challenges, these crucibles have transformative power that can radically shift how an individual thinks and behaves. Presence is having the confidence to know that no matter how tough the going gets, you can get your team through it and lead your organization along the right path.
A personal example
I’ve had my own crucible moments. A few involve management decisions, but not all. There was the time when I first appeared on the library professional development program, “Soaring to Excellence.” I knew it was a satellite teleconference broadcast to thousands of librarians, but I was confident, having spoken in front of large audiences. What I was unprepared for was the television studio setting, and the high degree of structure in the program. It turned out all right, but it was unnerving at points, and I was surely relieved when it was over. In the end I believed it was a good experience, and I learned from what I thought was a less than satisfactory performance. I went on to participate in four more episodes of Soaring, including a solo appearance. That crucible moment contributed to my ability to achieve greater presence in future presentations. I learned the value of immersing myself in the presentation experience and worrying less about getting everything just right. If I was myself, if I communicated the stories, and if I connected with the audience, I knew that it would go well and be a great experience for the audience—even if it was less than perfect. Those are the types of experiences that help to build presence across all the ways and at all the levels at which you may lead.
Qualities of presence
What exactly is presence anyway? For one thing, it’s the ability to understand crucible moments, to get through them as intact as possible, and to learn from them. Many aspects of presence are difficult to describe. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things, and quite possibly when you experience it yourself and have an “I get it” revelation. You know it when a reporter approaches with a tough question, and presence helps to not only deliver a spot-on answer, but to do so with style. Having a vision is important, but articulating it in a way that enables everyone to easily grasp but also emotionally connect with it is where presence makes the difference. The most basic aspect of presence may simply be in how you present yourself—in way that exudes confidence and professionalism.
Not the outgoing type?
Presence can be a vague, difficult to explain intangible, but what we do know suggests that it that is characterized by a dynamic personality, confidence with extemporaneous speaking, and an outgoing style. What about those who are more reserved? There are also more focused ways to demonstrate presence that reflect leadership capability. Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” actively champions the premise that introverts can be equally, and quite possibly more, effective leaders. In her book and articles she provides quotes of leadership experts extolling the virtues of being reserved and understated, as well as examples of successful leaders who demonstrate minimal charisma. Perhaps what is most important about presence is that those who have it are able to maintain their composure when the winds of crisis are swirling around them, and they lead their organizations through crucible moments and wicked problems. If introverted leaders can do that, then the outcome is what matters most. One concern is that a quiet, reserved leader may be less likely to effectively communicate to internal and external stakeholders in a challenging situation, the type of communication that reassures people and lets them know things are under control.
Improving your presence
Many academics will have no desire to increase their presence. Those who teach may want to give it some thought. With undergraduate classes it may help to establish your presence right at the start by explaining why you are the instructor, what you are there to accomplish, and the anticipated outcomes. Doing so with presence communicates that you are in control, though not their regular instructor, and that you expect full attention and effort. Having presence at a service desk means you are ready for questions and eager to give the answers that instill confidence in those seeking your help. For those leading library committees or serving on institutional committees, bringing presence means active participation, sharing candid thoughts, and encouraging others to do the same. And in the administrative suite presence is about saying what you mean and doing what you say—consistently.
There’s no surefire way to develop your presence. You’ll find suggestions to start with physical appearance, including choice of wardrobe or posture improvement to help build self-confidence. I think the best way is to find good role models and examples, and study their behaviors. Some may want to seek out a mentor who displays presence, and then gain that mentor’s support in building personal presence. It also helps to take the risks that put us into those crucible moments, rather than shy away from them. Playing it safe is always easier, but what I’ve learned about presence is that those who demonstrate it have learned from life’s difficult experiences. They emerge from the crucible stronger and more confident in their ability to face adversity and whatever life may throw their way. Put simply, they earn their presence. While presence is perhaps more earned than learned, aspiring leaders should develop their presence as an ingredient for better leadership.