Executive Present

The captain of industry–captain of this particular industry–rose from the table. I’d just seen him mildly dismiss the proposal one project team had brought to him. Their work of weeks: an answer to a question he had posed about the viability of a product repositioning. To them, his dissatisfaction was anything but mild. Across from him, remote in hand, the red-faced spokesperson for the team felt naked, crushed.

Later the team will avoid asking what went wrong, but each member will write a mental story with heroes and villains. Some will point to team mates who should have caught the problem. Some will tell of a valiant band struggling to survive a capricious overlord. I will hear them all in the interviews I conduct in the hours and days after the meeting.

He will be shocked when, sometime next year, one of these hidden narratives surfaces and he will complain to his coach that it never happened. And he’s partly right: he never did that. At least, he wasn’t there when his people experienced that. He was already on to the next item on the agenda once he’d decided the issue was over. He’d done what he was supposed to do: be executive.

Recently I was listening to a friend who was wrestling with the dilemma of what lessons to learn from one of his mentors. The challenge was the seeming disconnect between the public and off-stage faces of this very successful executive. “Do authenticity and executive presence have to be at war?” was his question.

Shouldn’t executive presence have something to do with being present? Caught up in the assumed imperative to “be decisive” and “make things happen” and do be quick about it, some leaders move in a strange and fantastic bubble, untethered to the common world of we mortals. They see everything from a place in the stratosphere from which they see only the untroubled surfaces that give the illusion of reality. What hope have they to get the whole picture when they are also surrounded by advisors who are mostly concerned with creating the right political image.

Maybe that would be OK if it actually worked, but it does not. Everyone around them sees the nakedness of the emperor. We can tell when you are faking it or when you are pretending to be engaged with us. We need to make it clear that executive presence doesn’t refer to dressing well and appearing unflappable, but to someone who is in charge of his or her own attention. You cannot command the loyalty of those who cannot command your attention. [tweet this]

3 thoughts on “Executive Present

  1. Intentional presence should be a required competency for everyone – and most especially those in leadership positions. As a former executive who often struggled with the desire to be authentic and be responsive to the results-oriented organizational demands, I concluded that the two were, in fact, not mutually exclusive. By actually showing up and paying attention on purpose, I came to understand that my struggle for authenticity had nothing to do with my perceived organizational demands. Rather, I was struggling to make a square peg fit into a round hole (i.e., me into an organization for which I was not a very good match). The quest for authenticity via intentional presence in our lives would ideally occur long before stepping into a particular position or role. Being truly clear about who we are, what matters most, and the truest desires of our hearts is the road to genuine, lasting, and compelling authenticity; the kind of authenticity that provides a guiding light to others and serves as a source of inspiration and motivation. It requires courage and commitment – a small price to pay for the lifelong benefit of doing what you love and loving what you do – and, ultimately, commanding the respect of those we lead.

  2. Agree that intentional presence is a key competency for any leader. Given competing priorities facing most executives, it also requires a great deal of self awareness and ongoing commitment to achieve. Those that do it well, I believe, are significantly more effective leaders because of the impact on employees who feel genuinely heard.

    I think the other important topic you touched on is that of being surrounded by advisors whose main concern is political image. Margaret Heffernan’s book, “Willful Blindness,” uses examples like Enron to discuss what can happen when corporate culture supports only positive messages reaching the top executive ranks. An effective leader will demonstrate through active listening and follow up actions that he or she wants to understand the full spectrum of organization activity and performance.

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