What Is Leadership Presence and How Can It Be Developed?
Lisa Bloom turns the tables and interviews me about leadership presence
Posted Jun 19, 2017
What is leadership presence and how can it be developed? That’s the question Lisa Bloom is asking senior leaders for her yet-to-be published book, Demystifying Leadership Presence: Mastering the 4 Core Stories. In this special episode, we not only learn about the four narratives that define our leadership; Lisa also turns the tables and interviews me for my take on leadership presence. Discover when "fake it 'til you make it" actually works, the significance of your inner and outer stories, and my best insights on how to develop leadership presence. Listen here.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. I'm Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
With us today is Lisa Bloom. I met Lisa through a mutual friend, Ron Friedman, who has also been on this podcast so if you haven't heard his podcast it's well worth listening to. Lisa wanted to talk to me about a book that she was writing. When we began to talk about it over email I thought it would be interesting to have her as a guest on the show. This is going to be a little bit of a different kind of show. She's going to start by telling us a little bit about the book that she's writing, and I'll ask her some questions, and then we'll be in conversation about it.
The book is about leadership presence. She's a storyteller and was really interested in presence. When she talked to people about it and said what is a leadership presence, the leaders that she was working with would respond with something about charisma, but they couldn't quite understand exactly what it is. Yet they could identify people who had it. I imagine that you as listeners could probably do the same. Lisa's goal in her new book is to unpack that, and understand what is leadership presence.
The title of the book is "Demystifying Leadership Presence. Mastering the Four Core Stories". She's interviewing people, myself included, around understanding that and I wanted to turn the tables on her and interview her back so that we can learn about it before the book comes out about what this thing called leadership presence is, what the four core stories are, and then we'll be in a conversation. With that long introduction, Lisa welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Lisa: Thank you so much. It's great to be here. I'm looking forward to this conversation.
Peter: Tell us about demystifying leadership presence. You may want to start with the four core stories, or maybe about some background around leadership presence.
Lisa: Sure. As you said, I come from a storytelling background and I'm often hired to come in to senior leaders before they have a really big event to help them with their stage presence. To help them with finding the right story to tell that's going to engage the audience and make them feel comfortable, and really have that level of interaction that they're looking for. I think we all recognize that many great leaders are great story tellers so it's a skill that people are looking to acquire, but what I started to notice was that the leaders who really struggled most with stage presence were actually also struggling with leadership presence.
As you mentioned I would ask, "What is leadership presence?" People would say, "Oh it's charisma," and I'd say, "Well don't you know any leaders that the typical the leader walks in the room and we feel her presence? What is that?" I would say, "Don't you know any leaders who have that sense, who have that presence, but are not particularly charismatic?" They would all say, "Oh yeah. Sure. Absolutely." That's when I kind of set off on this journey to look at what is presence. When I looked at the research, and when I spoke to people, I seemed to find two almost extremes in the field. One of them would be well leadership presence is all about how you look, what do you wear, how you stand, and your voice. All about kind of high level presentation skills.
The other area would be it's all about how zen you are. If you practice yoga, and meditation, and mindfulness every single day. It just seemed like the model out there was two major extremes, and that something had to be there that would encompass everything. That would be more holistic and that's when I discovered these four stories, which I believe is really a way to not only understand leadership presence, but also to develop and to master it through mastering these stories.
Peter: Share the four stories with us.
Lisa: Sure. There's two different levels and there's two different focuses. There's the higher level, and there's a lower level, and there's the internal focus, and the external focus. Let me just give you some background to that. What I notice also is that when people talk about story, very often they're talking about the story out, as in the story that people are impressed by. What do you tell about yourself? The story that's focusing outwards. I remember I was at an entrepreneurial event a couple of years ago in California and I noticed that there was such a huge dichotomy between what I see as the outer story and the inner story. In the room full of happy, abundant entrepreneurs there was all this talk of success and how everything is in flow, and everything's wonderful.
Every time I would go to the bathroom I would hear these women talk about the divorces, the drug addict kids, and the counselors. All the real stuff. The inner story. I just thought to myself there's something about authenticity around the integration, and connection between the inner and outer story. That's where, again, another starting point for all this research and a lot of the work that I do. The four stories really focus on the external focus, and the internal focus.
Peter: Let me interrupt for a second and ask you a question about the way you're using the word story. I tell bedtime stories to my children. The way you're using story it sounds like: what is our story? What is the story that we're living? Am I thinking about this correctly?
Lisa: Yes, and it's also what's the story we're telling because whatever you do, if you are a leader, or if you're in the business of supporting leaders, coaching leaders, and interested in leadership, we are telling stories all the time. Within an organization, stories are just ripe with, I mean organizations are just ripe with stories and stories are often decors of both positive and negative huge impact both culturally and in terms of even sales and revenue. If a product has a good story it tends to succeed. If an organization tells strong stories, the culture tends to be a positive culture. When you shift a story you can end up with a very negative or toxic environment.
Peter: It sounds like that would be true for the external story. Is the internal story also a story that we actually tell, or is it a story that we tell ourselves?
Lisa: Very often it's the story we tell ourselves. It has huge impact on the story we tell out, particularly if there's a big differentiation between the two. If there's a distance between the two. It's a misalignment and one affects the other. Some people call it, when you think about the imposter syndrome, where people are hugely successful but have this inner story that says I'm successful until they discover that I actually don't know anything and I'm faking. That's being written about quite a lot. We have many internal stories, inner stories, that sabotage our success or that hold us back. Hold us from reaching out greatness. That is true of leaders, and it's true of everybody.
Peter: I would guess that you are not a fan of the fake it until you make it kind of concept that ultimately the fake it til you make it is: I'm going to project an outer story that I don't actually yet feel internally.
Lisa: I think it can work as an exercise. I can definitely recognize that you can grow into a story and I definitely believe that we can create and co create stories that are visionary, that are inspirational in order to reach that, and often times I'll work with teams and organizations where we'll create a fantastic future story, which inevitably once they've created it they will reach it. Once they've envisioned it they will create it. So yes, there is a sense of you create the story then you turn it into reality. Because that's what we do. Whatever story we tell becomes our reality. If we want to craft something that really inspires us as a way to move forward or a goal, then there's must more likelihood that if it's a solid story we're actually going to be able to make it real.
Peter: Got it. There's this external story and the internal story. Those are two of the core stories?
Lisa: Well it actually breaks down further. There are two that point out, there are two that point in. The first level of the external story is simply the story people tell about you. Often times people will say, "The story people tell about me, well what do I have? What influence do I have on that?" People tend to think, "I don't have any influence." They'll tell whatever they want to tell, but of course the model breaks down the ways in which we can deeply influence the story that people tell about you. A huge percentage of that story is something that we can control and we can influence, so that's the first story.
On the second level of the external focus, it's the story that you tell them. We are telling stories all the time. Often times we're telling them quite unconsciously in terms of the effect it has on other people. In leadership, if you are focused and you can master the story that you tell them, then you're going to have much more success and much more presence. They're the two externally focused stories.
Peter: What are the two internally focused stories?
Lisa: On the first level, the internally focused story it's the story you tell yourself. That's part of what I've already described is sense of the inner voice, what you believe, and it's the kinds of commitments that you have. The convictions you have. The mindset and so on. On a deeper level, the internal focus is what I call the story you are. This has much more to do with your self development, your personal mastery, your purpose. More on the being level. That's a deeper, that one for managers who are not quite at that senior level that's harder sometimes for them to grasp, but it's fantastic in terms of creating a developmental plan because at the senior levels, they get it. They know what that means. The story you are is that solid base from which you take a stand and from which you feel confident.
Peter: If you could do this in a minute or two, give us an example that you could use as you think about her use of these sort of four stories?
Lisa: I think we all recognize, I'm not sure I understand the question. You want an example of a leader in a situation?
Peter: Right now it's conceptual, it would be interesting to see it or hear about it in an example of someone who has these stories.
Lisa: Sure. I have a great example of a CEO that I am worked with who told me kind of an anecdote of something that had happened to him as he was a young manager, before he got to a senior level. He said that he was involved in a negotiation for a very big deal between two large companies. The deal kind of was about to be clinched and the two most senior leaders who were basically about to sign the contract were going to go out for dinner, and spend time over dinner discussing the fine details and come to the actual agreement. What happened was, the leader who was I think he was either the president or the CEO of this company, he had invited the other person and he was going to make this final decision whether to buy this project, buy this company.
He invited the guy for dinner, and the guy sat down, and they were in a very nice restaurant, and the server came along and began to serve them water and ask them if they were ready to order. Something in the way that this other leader responded to the server, and was very offhand and quite rude. The man refused to sign the contract. He actually did not sign the contract as a result of the fact that this leader was not this kind of decent human being who was willing to treat people, treat serving staff as human beings and in a way in which they needed to be respected. That to him reflected a level of leadership that was not acceptable. This guy held a standard to the way you treat people.
Do you know the name of the person who cleans your office? Do you take time to acknowledge the people who serve you at the lowest levels, not just the ones at the highest level. That was part of his leadership presence and the model that he wanted to give to others.
Peter: That makes sense to me entirely. Connect it to the four stories, the four core stories because I'm missing that connection a little bit.
Lisa: That fits in with the behavior around the story that you tell them. The story that you're not just your business knowledge, not just your level of risk taking but actually your interpersonal skills. How you acknowledge other people, how you listen, how you connect, how you respect people. That's one of the ways in which we break down and teach the story you tell them.
Peter: You're not actually literally telling them a story, but your actions tell them a story. What you do, how you show up in the world creates a story for the outside world to see.
Lisa: Because presence isn't a once upon a time story. Okay it's not a once upon a, it's how you show up. Much of it is wordless. The way in which you have an impact on somebody is often not about what you say to them, it's about a lot of things. One of them is the story you tell and the way you show up, and the way you act towards people, and the way you connect with people, and how you respect people.
Peter: Got it. Okay great. I understand. I think listeners probably understand these four stories. We're about halfway through, let's switch over and have a conversation about it. Do you have questions for me that you want to ask?
Lisa: Absolutely. Absolutely. I actually want to ask you what your opinion is of leadership presence. Because I know you've come across it, I know you probably work with it quite a lot. How would you describe leadership presence?
Peter: It's interesting that you talk about this feeling that someone walks in the room and you just notice them. To me, there's something very energetic about that. This might for some people feel woo woo, but you feel it from someone. Yes, maybe it has to do with their size. We all know 6'4 people who walk in, it's hard not to notice them, but I also think, if you remember Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink", we have these instantaneous reactions to people, and in a millisecond I'll feel like I either like them or I don't like them. I know enough to say these might be connected to my prejudices or my biases, and the stories that I tell myself. All sorts of things so I can question that, but there's an immediate energy you get from someone.
That's very much the internal story. it's very much the sense of groundedness. Are they in their bodies? When we teach leadership, when we work with leaders, we do a lot of physical work because if you're not in your body, in my view, you'll never have that leadership presence. Because we're physical beings. Someone walks in the room, they're walking in the room. If they're in a wheelchair, they're wheeling in the room with their physical body. That physicality is important. How you inhabit your body, I think, makes a big difference. My view of leadership presence has to do with the physicality, and the emotion, and the intellectual mental piece, and the spiritual piece.
When we talk about the four stories integrating, I think it's important to have integration in your physicality, your emotion, your mental intellectual aspect, and the spiritual aspect. We know people who are comfortable in themselves. They're just comfortable in themselves. When someone is a little too formal, then they have in effect a mask. They’re wearing some kind of a mask that allows for that formality, and my view of leadership presence is the mask is attempting to hide a vulnerability, and in hiding vulnerability weakens leadership presence. I think we connect with each other emotionally in vulnerability, not really even in strength.
A mask is trying to project this story out into the world of strength, and great if you feel it and if you have it, but if there's vulnerability, and compassion, and empathy, and connection, that's how we connect with people. We connect with people in points of pain. Probably more than we connect with people in points of admiration and strength. To me, I think all of that fits in to leadership presence.
Lisa: Beautiful. Yeah I love that. I love that. Thank you. Do you think it's learnable? Is this something that people are born with or do you think that they can learn it, and develop it, and master it.
Peter: I always think that the dichotomous question is somewhere in the middle. Are you born with it? I had Jim Kouzes on the show - he wrote "The Leadership Challenge" - and we were talking about leadership. He spoke to this are you born with it or do you learn it. He says, "Well everybody's born, so we'll start there." If you've been born, you've been born with something. I think it's a combination. Is it learnable? Absolutely. Will some people be able to go further with their learning than others? Probably, right? Some people are so uncomfortable with themselves that just increasing their comfort with themselves, finding yourself in your body an additional 20% will increase your leadership presence.
Will you have as much leadership presence as people who have been comfortable in their bodies for 40, 50 years? It'll probably take you some time to get there. Are there things that you can do to become more comfortable and grounded in your body? 100% absolutely, no question. I think the question of are you born with or can you learn it is too black and white. My answer is you can always learn it. You can always get better from where you are. You can always show more leadership presence. My view is that the distinction between showing leadership presence and being comfortable and connected in your life is a very thin line. To me the advantage of gaining leadership presence is you walk in the world with more confidence than you would otherwise.
Lisa: I love that. I love your focus on the whole grounding and the body side to it because as a story teller that's something that really speaks to me. We train, my background as a professional storyteller is training to be able to tell from your body, to embody the story. That's so much about leadership. Thank you.
Peter: How do you help people really ground themselves in their bodies?
Lisa: From storytelling, I have all these techniques that I do from walking barefoot as you practice the story to visualizing the actual physicality of the story in terms of time and space. There's lots of techniques. With leaders, and for stage presence similarly we do a lot of actual physical work. Moving around the stage, moving your body, getting to a place of comfort. You're so right. It's about the person's individual comfort with themselves first and foremost. If that's not there you have to work on that before you can move forward to great stage presence and leadership presence.
Peter: It reminds me when I was in college I took a class on storytelling and we all chose a story to tell, and there were a number of things that we did. This was not a class for credit by the way, this was an extracurricular thing, but we all chose a story to tell, and part of the process, the part of the process that I remember most is we had to draw out the story. We basically drew cartoon versions. We had 30 boxes, and we had to fill each box with elements of the story.
Lisa: Story board.
Peter: Story board. Thank you. We had to story board it and I'm not a great artist. That's never been my forte, maybe I could probably improve on it because I think you can learn things and not just be born into them, but I remember how surprising it was. How essential it was to storyboard it, and how clearly I saw what I was saying when I was telling the story, how clearly I saw it as though I were there. I wonder what you think of story boarding as a way of getting ourselves really in that story. Maybe even creating storyboards about our own story. About who we are in the world. I wonder have you thought about that or tried that?
Lisa: Yeah. I mean I've played with the idea a little bit. I tend to, because as a story teller, I like the activity of story. For example for me, when I'm practicing preparing for whether it's a speaking event or at my speaking events they're all full of stories, I'll be out walking. I'll put on headphones because I'm going to be talking out loud and I don't want to look like an entire lunatic to my neighborhood, but I'll be out there talking, telling the story, doing movements and so on. For me it's not so much putting it on paper, although I think story boarding is I mean it's a fantastic tool, but definitely they say as a story teller they say if you see your story, your audience will see the story.
That is absolutely true. In fact now neuroscience is proving that. There's this whole mirroring affect that happens. If you can see the story as you tell it, if you can truly embody the story, then the story is going to come across as authentic, and real, and compelling, and resonant for people. I believe that it's the same with any type of communication for leaders. It's such a critical skill to be able to do that. Another quick question because I'm conscious of the time and I've got so much to ask you here. Okay we've established it's learnable.
Everything's learnable. Do you think that there's a particular method of learning that's going to be more powerful. Maybe this is a skewed question because we're both leadership coaches, but do you think for example, teaching, coaching, mentoring, putting people in a certain environment so that they're exposed to certain situations is the best way to teach this skill of leadership presence.
Peter: Yes to all of those questions. I think that we learn in so many different ways and so many elements of learning come into play. I'm not a huge advocate of sitting in a classroom and having someone just teach me something from a PowerPoint and write it down. On the other hand I want to say that it's useful to learn a new concept. It's useful to understand new things intellectually. Now if it stays intellectual, you probably won't be able to integrate it. I think there's space for everything. There's space to teach new information. There's space to try it out. I think ultimately we never really learn it until we're taking real risks with it because the challenge in taking a risk is am I willing to feel something. If I'm not willing to feel something, if I'm not willing to feel the risk of showing up authentically and in vulnerability, and I'm not willing to feel that at all then when I'm standing on the stage I definitely won't project it.
I think we have to grow our capacity to feel a variety of things. That has to be part of the learning process - it's what I call emotional courage. If we're not growing our emotional courage, then we're probably not going to show up in the way we want to show up in real life. I think mixing it all up, and certainly real time, real places, real people is how we end up fully integrating the new behavior and go from something that's sort of consciously we're working on to something that unconsciously becomes a part of who we are.
Lisa: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. I love that. In terms of leadership capabilities, do you think this is a big one? Do you think this is important? Personally do you think it's an important capability to have leadership presence? Do you think that it's recognized within organizations as an important capability? Again, when I say leadership presence I'm not talking about necessarily standing on a stage and addressing 2,000 people, I'm talking about the way you interact and show up in all parts of your leadership. How important is this?
Peter: I think it's a critical skill in my view. You have to be careful not to be a shell of leadership presence. Meaning to have leadership presence without anything underneath it. The truth is I think that's impossible. If you're going to show up really with leadership presence, there has to be an authenticity to it, otherwise energetically you're going to convey that. I can see through people, you can see through people, everybody listening here can see through people all the time. That doesn't mean they won't be in very senior leadership roles in the world, and politics and whatever but at the same time you don't necessarily want to follow them.
The leadership presence, I want to go so far as to say I think it's a life skill. Not only is it important in leaders, I think it's important in anybody. I am attracted to people who have presence. Who are able to be confident in themselves. Be generous with others. People who are a little scared and insecure often show up as arrogant. They might even have presence. They might have a lot of presence on stage, but that arrogance kills the relationship. There has to be an authenticity, and the clarity from the inside out. You're talking about the inside story and the outside story, I think they have to match because otherwise it's thin. It's very easy to see through it. It doesn't hold up under pressure.
Lisa: I see such a connection between authenticity and leadership presence in that if it's not the real deal, you sense it a mile away. You can just know that that's the case. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. You've answered a ton of questions and I've loved your insights. I really appreciate it.
Peter: Thank you too. This has been a really fun podcast. I really enjoyed hearing about the four core stories at the beginning and then being in a conversation about it. I'm excited to read this book when it comes out. You'll have to let me know and I'll let the listeners of the podcast know. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Lisa: Thank you.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That's the problem that we solve with our big arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.