Leading with presence

If your team, customers, or clients don’t see you often enough they will think two things; one you don’t understand the challenges they are facing; and two you don’t care.

Too many leaders get caught in the act of doing rather than been present with those they are in fact leading or attempting to influence.  

Having worked in crisis and disaster areas across the globe including Indonesia following the Bali Bombings, Thailand in the aftermath of the South East Asian tsunami, Saudi Arabia post the deadly floods in Jeddah and Japan following the tsunami of 2011, I have witnessed the response of individual leaders with and without positional authority.

True leaders are not defined by the position they hold, but their actions and reactions.  In times of crisis or indeed enormous opportunity, it is not the position or title that you possess but what you do which is most critical.

There are in my experience four key actions that will define a leader, particularly in times of great pressure:

  1. To act with Speed - When an opportunity presents to lead, so often it will fall to those who move first, those who take decisive action and step forward.  If you wait until you have all of the answers to all of the questions prior to taking action - someone will beat you to it.  When an opportunity presents in the marketplace so often those they move first will hold that position.  You may not need to be the best, but being the first will often ensure you hold that position of authority.
  2. To lead with Sensitivity - If we are not facing change we are not growing.  Change upsets people and that is a good thing, but how we respond to that is important.  If we understand that most people are resistant to change, yet we acknowledge change is necessary for growth, what do we do to address those issues of resistance, prior to implementing that change. Anticipating the points of resistance and dealing with those prior to commencing the change program will see a smoother transition.
  3. To have a Structure - you can’t lead an effective organisation without structure and it is necessary for consistency in results and performance.  But with too much structure you take away the decision making ability of your leaders, you dampen creativity and you end up with managers not leaders.
  4. To lead with Simplicity - this follows on from the previous point.  Your leaders need to make decisions without deliberation.  If they make a decision with integrity and good intent and get it wrong they will be forgiven.  If they fail to make a decision for fear of making the wrong decision, they won’t be forgiven.  
As a leader you don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t even have to bring about change - but you do need to be present.

Overarching these four key points is the importance of the presence of leaders.  Executive presence sits on three levels.  Leadership of the brand you represent, leadership of your team and finally leadership of yourself.  

If your team, clients or customers don’t see you often enough they will think two things.

The first is that you don’t care and the second is that you don’t understand they challenges they are facing.  Leaders should not underestimate the value of their presence when it comes to leading.  

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami to strike the east coast of Japan in 2011, I would spend time with a man by the name of Mr. Sato who was the community leader of a small seaside village that was destroyed.  Lives were lost, homes destroyed and commerce came to a grinding halt.  A number of buildings built high above the water level survived the destruction when those lower did not.  Those buildings included a community hall and Mr. Sato’s personal home. It was the actions of Mr. Sato each evening that conveyed his understanding and compassion to those in the community he was leading.  Rather than partake of his evening meal with his family in his home that survived the tsunami, each night he would make the journey to the community hall to sit and share dinner with those members of his community who had lost their homes.  

His presence each evening conveyed to the community that he very much understood their loss and he cared.  After the meal Mr. Sato would move between the group, sitting on the floor next to members of his community to hear of their needs, loss and generally just demonstrate his commitment to the community. 

Mr. Sato did not need to join his neighbours for an evening meal to understand the loss that was inflicted upon his community.  He did not provide meaningful solutions during those evening meals as to the reconstruction of their homes or reduce the burden of the loss of family members.  But having the answers is not what was expected of Mr. Sato.  HIs presence conveyed to those he sat next to that he cared and understood - that was all those he shared a meal with were expecting of their leaders at that time.  There is of course a need for answers to much bigger problems, but the culture of our organisations and communities is often built on much smaller issues.