“Presence” is one of those easily recognisable but hard to define qualities.
A pragmatic definition is: “Influencing others simply by being there”. Someone, who has presence commands attention and respect. Other people listen to them and place value on what they say. They do not need to impress others by making a lot of noise or show – indeed, their “presence’ may be greatest when they are most still and calm.
Among the key characteristics that underpin presence is the trio of Charisma, Gravitas and Authoritas. Together these sub-qualities interact to deepen presence.
The roots of Charisma come from “care”. When someone exhibits charisma, they show passion and conviction about what is “right”. People with very high levels of charisma demonstrate that they care not only about a cause, but also about other people. They listen as intensely and with the same level of passion as when they talk. Charisma is sometimes confused with passion on its own, but people who are passionate without the wider sense of caring become merely obsessive.
Gravitas implies weight, particularly in the sense of accumulated wisdom. A person with gravitas carries with them a sense of dignity. They may speak thoughtfully – and hence relatively slowly – as they draw on their immense store of knowledge and insight to consider an issue. Their knowledge is one of the sources of their self-confidence, but it also causes them to balance that confidence with a humility that comes from understanding how little anyone can really know. People with gravitas do not seek to be, nor do they need to feel invulnerable. They are secure in the knowledge that they don’t have to be right all the time.
Authoritas describes the deference that others give a person, in recognition of their greater authority. That authority may be derived from knowledge, position (the authority of office), physical factors (such as height), reputation and so on. Authoritas is the easiest to fake – for example, through expensive clothes, big office spaces or simply demanding attention – but is therefore also the least durable. For example, when a CEO retires, their authoritas may dissipate quickly.
To develop someone’s charisma, a coach or mentor can encourage them to reflect upon and talk about what they care about. How can they bring about significant change by infecting others with their enthusiasm? What are the stories they can tell, which will encourage the emotional attachment of other people to the values and ideals they espouse? At the same time, the coach or mentor can help them develop their skills of listening, so that they develop a reputation for “presence of attentiveness” – for being focused on others and bringing their whole selves into conversations. It’s also to think about respect as an exchange. Whilst fear diminishes both persons, respect tends to be reciprocated (we think better of people, who appreciate us). So simply seeking characteristics we can respect in another person enhances our presence with them.
A useful concept here is “grace”. The Oxford English Dictionary offers several diverse meanings of grace, including “ease and refinement of movement, action or expression”, “to confer honour or dignity upon” and “becomingness”. What would it take to do each part of your job with grace?
To help the person develop gravitas, the coach or mentor can start by addressing their fears. What can they let go of and how? They can also explore how to build greater respect for their knowledge and experience. Other people may have longer or wider experience, but gravitas comes from the quality of reflection on experience. Who else’s knowledge can they absorb, through reading more widely? If they are an extrovert and already have a reputation for coming up with quick ideas, how can they balance this with a reputation also for producing considered ideas? Having a reputation for effective summarising – and the timing to step in at meetings to provide a relevant summary – also adds to the picture of a wise, reliable and impactful person.
Building authoritas tends to rely on other people. A coach or mentor can help someone build authoritas by focusing their attention on:
- Building networks that carry real or implied authority (authority of representation)
- Developing greater self-confidence and belief in what they have to contribute
- Using posture and mental preparation to project a more confident image at meetings
- Acquiring the skills of constructive challenge in a ;power-laden environment
- Raising awareness of the subtle ways, in which power is expressed and how to work with or around that (for example, who sits where in team meetings)
Issues a coach or mentor can help with in using authoritas include: Issues a coach or mentor can help with in using authoritas include:
- Managing situations where the person has responsibility but not authority (one of the commonest issues that undermines respect from others)
- Dominance is not the same as presence. A crucial test is “How much respect do less powerful people afford you, when you are not there?”
- Being balanced in using power. Various studies show that power does, indeed, corrupt. Some of the qualities that are most important in supporting the rise to power (knowing one’s own ability, managing risk, thinking in stereotypes, considering others’ needs and listening to other opinions) deteriorate when people become accustomed to holding power. Thinking about how to retain the essential humility of good leadership helps to re-balance a leader
Of course, it takes time to develop
presence. And when you do acquire it, it is only on looking back that you
realise you have it.
© David Clutterbuck, 2023