What is presence and why is it important for leaders? Presence is difficult to measure but we know it when we see it. Or, more accurately, when we feel it. A leader who is present is focused, attentive and engaged. When we experience this kind of leader the quality of their presence inspires us to be more present as well. It may sound a bit like charisma, but presence is not based on personality or style so much as self-awareness and empathy for others.
I remember when I worked at a large technology company and we had to lay off 20 percent of our workforce. The general manager of our division had to break the bad news. What impressed me about her was that she didn’t flinch. But she also didn’t harden up. She demonstrated presence in her ability to remain steady, communicate the situation clearly, and respond openly to the many emotions people were expressing — from relief that they might get a buy-out to anger that they might lose their jobs. She created opportunities for everyone to voice their concerns as well as offer their suggestions for the transition. At one point, she even shared her own experience about how difficult this decision had been. Yes, she was being vulnerable, but not mushy — just direct and inclusive of all of the ways people were experiencing the news.
Mindfulness practice can help us cultivate our own leadership presence — especially in difficult situations. This can be very beneficial in the workplace. Typically when faced with a problem we try to think our way out of it. Perhaps we mull it over and try to explore it from many different points of view. We might recall times when something like this happened in the past or fantasize about future scenarios. Occasionally this can be a helpful approach, but research has shown that we often come up with better solutions if we disengage from obsessive thinking and, instead become mindful of the fullness of our experience in that moment.
While owning a building seems like something every successful business should do, that’s not always the case. For many companies, it makes more sense to continue leasing space, freeing up time and capital that can be better utilized in other ways.
When we do this we get in touch with feelings of fear or anxiety that have been keeping our head spinning and face them directly. Through mindfulness we can welcome them with a non-judgmental attitude. When we bring mindful awareness to our actual experience we begin transmuting these feelings and developing empathy for what others may be experiencing as well. Instead of reacting blindly to our feelings we can bring relaxation and curiosity to the moment and new possibilities and solutions can begin to arise. In addition, we experience a sense of well-being that comes from having been courageous.
Perhaps you need to give corrective feedback to an employee or tell your customers their delivery will be late. Instead of thinking about the issue and rehearsing possible strategies try shifting your awareness to your experience of the present moment, which includes all of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. A good place to start is to bring awareness to the experience of breathing — noticing the sensation of your lungs expanding and contracting with each breath. As thoughts arise, gently label them “thinking” and return to the breath. Do the same with feeling and sensation, always returning to the experience of breathing. In this way you can cultivate leadership presence through mindfulness and bring more of who you are to your leadership role.
Susan Skjei, Ph.D., is the director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Naropa University and author of the online course Mindful at Work. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org