Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Over my 30-year career I've had the opportunity to speak with other Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 executives and leaders. I've asked them “what's the one thing you look for with stellar talent – someone with natural leadership potential – that makes a candidate stand out?” and almost to a letter they say, “It's presence.”
When I ask them “what is presence” they tell me, “Well, presence is a feeling you get when you observe how someone gracefully or seamlessly interacts with other people, other environments, and different incidents and occasions.” It’s what the French call “je ne sais quoi” -- it's a “special something” that almost defies satisfactory explanation.
You can't measure it; it's something that somebody has.
Is presence innate? Can we acquire it? Many of the people that we admire, that we follow – maybe we've been mentored by – we can incorporate some of those qualities into our own process of leadership moving forward. But I believe that truly focused presence leadership, that high-level leadership with presence, is part of an individual’s personality.
Describing presence is like trying to describe a summer breeze: you can feel it on your skin; you can hear it as it rustles leaves in trees; and you can observe its effect on laundry on a clothesline, or a flag waving on a flagpole. You can only describe how a breeze affects things it comes in contact with and not "the breeze" itself.
Over my my career, I've identified four characteristics of leaders that exude presence: (1) They know how to actively engage others; (2) they know how to position their expertise and value; (3) they know how to use their expertise and value to influence decisions in their favor; and (4) they can easily convert other people to their side of the table or their side of the argument or their side of the issue.
Influential and persuasive intelligence is a personal quality that enhances emotional intelligence (the arbiter between the rational brain and emotional brain), and evokes in others (subordinates, stakeholders, peers, potential clients, customers, family members, etc.) a mostly voluntary desire to comply with, to follow, or to align with that person’s vision, position, beliefs, or policies. It is the beneficial application of influential intelligence, along with emotional intelligence.
Influential and persuasive intelligence is too often confused with power and position when, in fact, it is the beneficial, positive, and intelligent application of engagement, influence, and persuasion in stewardship roles.
Adlai Stevenson III once said, you can't lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse; in other words, you have to know and believe you have that “special something.” We could probably use the term “charisma” to capture what presence is to a certain degree, but charisma is also part of that emotional intelligence that strong leaders will also embrace.
Charisma allows you to put forth your thoughts, position, or your beliefs in front of other people and maybe convert them to your side of the issue. Presence-filled charisma is what allows you to do so by making those people also feel like the most important people in the room. And nothing feels better than making someone else feel validated, acknowledged, and interesting.
Presence really is influential intelligence because that's the way it manifests itself. There is no “ten things to do to build presence” recipe; there's no “Top ten presence checklist.” Presence is more like your shadow than a suit you put on or take off at the end of the day. It's always with you presence, will always be with you when you're in the light or outside of the light in the shadows.