How to build leadership presence

Recently the choir I sing in during my spare time hosted a team building exercise for a group of executives who were each given the chance to pick up the baton and conduct us. And what training were they given to prepare? None. They weren’t even told what music they were going to conduct – is that Handel’s Messiah or Verdi’s Requiem? – they simply had to start waving a common time (or should that have been a waltz time?).

It was a brilliant exercise in assessing each individual’s leadership credentials. There’s a certain amount of bravery needed to stand up there on the podium and have the ‘front’ to look and act like you know what you’re doing, with little or no initial direction, while quickly learning and assimilating from the response of the choir.

It was fascinating to see how the ‘conductors’ quickly took to the task and how their confidence grew as they realised how the choir responded to their actions – us choristers are a faithful lot given the right direction! Where a conductor leads, we follow.

Five pillars of leadership As well as being a lot of fun, the workshop provided some great insight into what defines ‘leadership presence’. What’s that ‘thing’ that makes a conductor a conductor, or a leader a leader? I’m often asked as a coach to talk about what I see as leadership presence and how to build that presence. In my view there are five key pillars.

1. Vision – leaders must have vision and be able to articulate that vision to the people following them.

2. An in-depth understanding of the business they’re leading and the criteria for success – what actions will move the dial?

3. Bringing people along on the journey – understanding the important issues for the organisation’s employees and the ability to empathise is key.

4. Political acumen and understanding when it comes to working with the external stakeholders and market forces that are critical to business success.

5. Personal resilience to withstand the slings and arrows that will come their way.

Big personality? An attribute I place less emphasis on is the big personality. The era of personality leadership – despite how it might appear on the political stage – is on the wane. Highly effective leaders are just as likely to be introverted, quieter characters but they can still wave the baton with huge effectiveness.

In his iconic book, Good to Great, Jim Collins extols the virtues of what he calls Level 5 leaders. They are hugely ambitious, but that ambition is focused on their organisation rather than themselves. “Every good-to-great transition in our research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality,” Collins writes going on to say that Level 5 leaders “are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.”

Be brave It’s back to those five key pillars that I think lie at the heart of leadership presence. The good news for aspiring and current leaders is they are all attributes that can be developed and this is frequently a central focus of my coaching. Of course, as a leader, sometimes you will just have to stand on that podium and start conducting the people around you – that’s the bravery – but work on these key attributes and your leadership presence will develop and, in turn, deliver better results for you and your organisation.