Presence and Leadership: Do you have what it takes?

Presence in leadership work is important. When presence is the source of how a leader chooses to think and act the quality of their thinking and the effectiveness of their actions can change dramatically, and for the better. We know this from leadership experience and research. What is this elusive thing called ‘presence’, why does it matter, how does it work?

To help us understand ‘presence’ and its importance to leadership, let’s approach it in 3 ways. First, presence as being curious; second, presence as being present; third, presence as deep learning. To illustrate each of these ways I’ve chosen examples for their quality, diversity and impact.

Presence as being curious

When a leader sits down and talks with another person they need to be curious about what the other person thinks and says about the issue being discussed, rather than impose their own point of view. This means being open to learning (what does the other person see and know that you might not see and know?), being open to modify your view (it may not be the only ‘truth’), and inviting critical feedback about your view (to check your assumptions for their validity). This is ‘mutual learning’ where you both learn from and with each other, you learn and so does the other person.

What does being curious look and sound like? An excellent example is last year’s (June 2015) televised and extraordinary conversation between President Barack Obama and naturalist Sir David Attenborough at the White House. You can watch it here

Obama does a number of things in the interview that are illustrative of a leader promoting ‘presence’ by being curious. For example, his not playing the power card to dominate the conversation; he listens acutely and doesn’t take notes; his genuine inquiry questions; his questions and comments are responses to what Attenborough is saying; he shares his thoughts and feelings; his relaxed demeanour and direct eye contact; his open manner and disposition.

These are helpful clues for us to understand ‘presence’ in a conversation and why it is important to effective leadership. By effective, in this context I mean genuinely engaging with another person by being curious about what they are thinking and saying. Curiosity promotes mutual learning, mutual understanding and mutual respect.

In your leadership work are you genuinely curious when you talk with another person or a team? How could you increase your curiosity to achieve better outcomes in your conversations and meetings?

Presence as being present

‘Presence’ can require a shift in our leadership thinking and actions, from being dominant and controlling in a conversation to being curious and humble. A great gift a leader can give another person or a group is their being ‘present’ to and for them. This means that a leader has an open mindset about the person(s) and the issue(s), seeking first to understand the other person and in turn to be understood by that person.

This is very different to the ‘default position’ of leadership. Research tells us that most leaders hold fixed assumptions about the person(s) and the issue(s), they are unwilling to have their assumptions checked, and they make judgments and decisions based on untested assumptions.

The act of being ‘present’ to and for another person, why this is a unique gift and has extraordinary impact on both parties, is powerfully illustrated by the performance artist Marina Abramovic. Her New York performance ‘The Artist is Present’ (2010) held daily over several weeks, in which the visitor sits in a chair facing her, attracted over 700,000 people and hopeful sitters waiting in long lines. You can watch an excerpt where her former partner Ulay is the visitor.

Abramovic does several things in her performance to increases our understanding of ‘presence’. For example, she sits facing her visitor and later has the table between them removed (it was a barrier); she looks directly into their face and holds their attention for as long as they want; she has no agenda to impose on the other person and each is free to decide the outcome; she does not control or judge how they respond; she is totally focussed on the other person and is not distracted by other things; she is there for them rather than for herself. All of this, and probably more, without a word spoken between them!

In your leadership work are you ‘present’ to and for another person or a team when you talk or meet with them? How could you be more ‘present’ to achieve better outcomes in your conversations and meetings?

Presence as deep learning

Let’s get complicated! Learning organisation theorist and writer Peter Senge (and co-authors) in Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future see ‘presence’ as deep learning and critical to an organisation’s (think schools) transformation and improvement.

However, most leaders and their organisations are ‘reactive learners’. When faced with challenge leaders usually react by ‘downloading’ habitual ways of thinking and doing, and they continue to see things in ways they’re comfortable with. As ‘reactive learner’ leaders, we act to defend our interests, our actions are re-enacted habits, and we end up reinforcing our existing and untested assumptions about people, situations and issues. At best, we get better at what we’ve always done!

When we learn to ‘presence’, a different type of learning is possible. The depth of our self-awareness, our understanding of others, and our consequent actions are very different to a ‘reactive learner’ leader. A result of ‘deeper learning’ is more flexible thinking and more effective action. This creates alternative ways of understanding and responding to challenges, which are the building blocks for a better future.

Seven core ‘presence-building capacities’ and the activities they enable are described in the book. When all seven capacities for ‘letting go’ and ‘letting come’ are developed, a process for creating a world (think school) not governed by habit is possible. Through this process, “in our deeper levels of learning our world is transformed, and we in turn can transform the world”. Clearly, ‘presence’ matters in leadership!

In your leadership work do you promote ‘deep learning’ when you talk with another person or a team? How could you increase ‘deep learning’ to achieve better outcomes in your conversations and meetings?

#presence #leadership #BarackObama #DavidAttenborough #MarinaAbramovic #PeterSenge

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