The power of presence – the 4 ways it manifests itself

The room was filled with donors, political consultants, business owners, and bureaucrats. It was a meet and greet sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Office of International Trade, an agency of the Department of State. I was there to meet with representatives from the government of American Samoa. It was an informal event, a cocktail hour of sorts where we mingled, snacked, drank, and talked in groups of 3 or 4.

I saw a man enter the event and begin to mingle. He passed through but very few paid him any attention. He would pause at one small group then another, but what happened surprised me.

No one paid any attention to him. No one. He had to insert himself into the conversation. I asked my host who the man was and learned he was candidate for Governor.

“He has no chance of winning,” I predicted to the host.

“Why do you think that?” he asked.

“Just look. No one is paying any attention to him. The paint on these walls is prompting more attention than he is.”

“Maybe it’s because they just don’t know who he is.”

“No,” I objected. “He has no presence. There is no air of authority, no sense of competence about him. He will get nowhere in this election.

I was correct. The man never made it past the primary election. I guess I should add that he was the sitting Lieutenant Governor at the time I saw him in that meeting. He had an office but he did not carry the air of an official. He had no command presence.

Command presence is a military term which describes the respect others offer to you, the influence they allow you to have with them, and the willingness with which they will follow you. Command presence cannot be faked. You either have it or you don’t.

This is not to say those you lead will not respect, respond, or follow you without it. They may do so because you occupy a formal position of leadership – your position in the company or organization which comes with a certain authority. But in the long run, over time your people will get to know you and this is where command presence dominates.

If you’ve watched classic American television, you have likely seen the exploits of Sheriff Andy Taylor and his intrepid deputy Barney Fife. Forgive me for using a fictitious illustration of a very real principle. Barney means well, takes his job seriously, and accepts responsibility willingly. But the badge he wears, the symbol of his authority, is not supported by a command presence.

One in a position of leadership may carry the trappings of authority bestowed upon them by the organization or company for which they work. But there is another dynamic that plays out here:

The people you lead must allow you the authority you wield. If they don’t, you can carry on for a while by sheer authoritarianism, but they will get you back.

Command presence is the consequence of character proven over time, consistently fair treatment of subordinates, obvious knowledge proven in real life practice, and wisdom born in the fires of experience.

New followers who have not had the benefit of working with you will grant you a line of credit, so to speak. They will allow you a certain time to demonstrate your competence and command presence and will follow you during that time. If time proves the credit they’ve extended to you to be a worthy investment, they will continue to willingly follow and eventually escalate their compliance into pride.

Leaders with command presence instill confidence. They never waver, never waffle, and never prevaricate. They press on, speak with certainty, issue orders with confidence, and reason persuasively.

Command presence manifests itself physically by body language. Leaders with command presence stand straight, don’t slouch, and dress appropriately. They use the trappings of power and authority within the context in which they function. They carry themselves with authority, not bluster. Demeanor and appearance means the person takes his responsibilities seriously and knows that dozens, perhaps many dozens of little things add up to create a package representing authority and function.

Command presence validates itself psychologically through a track record of sound decisions. Followers either see what you are doing and have done or they hear about it through others. Nothing encourages success like success.

Command presence manifests itself audibly. Leaders who possess it speak clearly, articulate their arguments, offer sound counsel, and lay out their ideas coherently. Superlative leaders everywhere are articulate people, a key component of command presence.

Presence manifests itself in these 4 ways.

  1. Confidence – leaders with presence exude confidence. From their posture, the way they move through a room or behind a podium, to the words they use they have an air of certainty. And confidence is contagious. It affects the way others respond to you.
  2. Competence – your reputation precedes you. Word gets around that you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. But proud to followthere’s one more benefit. Competence breeds confidence. The two contribute to each other. The air of confidence conveys the assurance that one is competent.
  3. Clarity – determine right now that you will be a leader who means what you say and say what you mean. Vow today that you will avoid spin (I discuss this in my podcast “The 1st Immutable Law of Leadership” (Listen here). A leader who dissembles, who colors the facts to suit his purposes will not maintain authority for long.
  4. Communication – superlative leaders manifest presence by their skills of communication. Whether they speak one on one, before a group, or in a written message, they are articulate, precise, concise, and persuasive. For some this comes quite naturally. Others need practice and coaching. No leader can be effective without skills of communication. When I was working with the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States I learned that there is no word in the Navajo language that would translate leader. The Navajos instead describe and define a leader as one who is an eloquent and persuasive speaker.

Leaders with presence can frame the discussion, persuade others to listen then follow, defend their values, and elevate the vision above the day to day fracus.

Ask yourself this:

  • When you enter a room, does anyone notice?
  • When you speak does anyone listen?
  • When you lead does anyone follow?

If so you have presence. If not, well then it merely means you’ve a little more work to do.


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