Developing Presence: including lessons from my life sabbatical

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Have you noticed that there are some people who command attention like a magnet just by being in a room? People, who radiate an energy that inspires and attracts others? They have learnt the secret of presence, which is a key quality for leaders with gravitas.

So what is presence and what can it ‘give’ you in a work context?

Presence is an attractive and compelling leadership quality. Unlike charisma, which can be whimsical, ego-led and skin-deep, leaders with presence radiate strength, sincerity and a sense of substance below the surface.

For today’s leaders and managers, the ability to capture and hold attention is crucial. Without presence, people may not notice you as you enter a room. They may not remember your name, or which department you belong to. You may not be selected for promotion, even though you are more than qualified for the role. You may find it difficult being heard in meetings or calls and get interrupted regularly. You may find yourself ignored at networking events, or struggle to engage your teams.

Although it may sometimes feel easier to keep a low profile, actively cultivating a presence – and knowing how and when to ‘dial it up’ – is key to building gravitas and getting the recognition you deserve.

There are several traits shared by people with presence:

  • Passion: a positive energy and commitment to a cause, message or purpose.
  • Inner Strength: an ability to draw energy and confidence from within rather than relying on others for validation and approval.
  • Individuality: a sense of being at ease in one’s own skin; being comfortable standing out of a crowd.
  • Attractiveness: a magnetic quality that draws attention either through physical appearance, a compelling voice, a powerful message or a combination of all three.
  • Likeability: a quality that inspires admiration and trust and inspires people to follow your lead.
  • Mystique: the impression that something is being held back, either through a desire for privacy or to conserve energy.
So how can you develop presence for yourself?

If you would like to develop your presence, it can be helpful to think of it as a flame whose intensity you can increase or decrease depending on the impact you’d like to make. At its core, presence is paying attention to the present moment and, in doing so, creating an energy which you can radiate outwards. The more energy you generate from within, the more you radiate outwards.

I have been fortunate enough to take a sabbatical from my life for the past ten days – leaving behind work, family, home and personal commitments. Whereas normal life is usually a tussle between urgent and important, circumstances have meant that the ‘stuff’ that usually clouds my vision has paled into insignificance, leaving nothing but the important. Although the interlude was for profoundly sad reasons, the opportunity to just be still and reflect has been an absolute gift and given me a much deeper understanding of presence than I ever had before.

Although it might not be possible to take a sabbatical from your life to attain this level of presence, there are steps you can take to develop this important and enriching quality.

Step 1: Slow down…

In a high-pressure work environment, it’s easy to become caught up by conflicting priorities, juggling an increasing list of tasks with a decreasing amount of time, rushing towards the next deadline without taking a step back and reflecting. With an extremely busy life and multiple demands and distractions, it can be easy to think that there is only one gear, the fast one, and only one lane, the one that will get you there quickest.

An obsession with speed is the quickest way to lose presence. Although living life permanently in the slow lane isn’t possible, or even desirable, you can choose to step off the bus every now and again and enjoy the calm feeling that settles when you slow down. For me, the transition between the fast and the slow lane was strange and uncomfortable, but when I got there and had time to gaze at the sky, notice the sunset, say the important things that are so often eclipsed and truly listen, I reached a profound sense of peace, which, a few days later has not left me.

There are some excellent books on mindfulness that will help you to slow down, or you could try a meditation app, like the hugely popular Headspace.

Step 2: Eliminate presence zappers…

We have all experienced the difference between being present – connected to the here and now – and absent, lost in our own thoughts or distracted from what’s going on around us. In addition to the real-life or self-imposed distractions, our attention is increasingly drawn to technology, the ultimate presence zapper. During a hectic work day, we would rather use email or instant messenger than pick up the phone. It’s much easier to send out a Powerpoint deck than explaining our point of view. We are locked onto our phones from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed.

If you want to increase your presence and get noticed for the right reasons, make a decision that you are going to ‘switch onto’ what’s going on in the room, real time. Bring as much energy and attention to the present moment as you can. Remove all technological devices from sight or earshot and pay attention. Take a break from all your social media and talk to people instead. It’s amazing how much more you get done.

Step 3: Tune into the world around you…

With the best will in the world, staying present can be exhausting! Divide your time between when it’s OK to let your mind wander and when it would serve you better to tune in. Looking to your surroundings will help you keep present. Notice the temperature of the room, the colours and shapes around you and how they build up an atmosphere. Carefully observe the people you’re with – their expressions, their gestures, their points of view. Choose to be fascinated by what they say rather than disengage. Connect using a mixture of senses: look them in the eye, ask questions, listen and reflect back their responses. Notice the energy and warmth that’s created when you decide to connect and how they repay you with their attention and focus.

There are thousands more techniques you can develop to increase your presence, particularly using your body language, breathing and voice, which we’ll explore in future Blogs. For now, I hope you enjoy the increased attention you command through these presence tips, as well as the inner peace that comes from being present.

For more on Presence, check out my book, ‘Leading with Gravitas’, or sign up for a Gravitas Masterclass.


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