Leadership Presence: It’s Harder Than It Looks

I am in the process of creating a three-part online course for first-time managers. It’s a lot of fun. But I have been struck by just how much is involved. Not in making the course (although that is definitely quite a process) but in actually trying to break down what effective leaders do… how they are… what it is that gives them ‘leadership presence’.

Great leaders – effective leaders – make it look effortless. Like the proverbial swan gliding across the lake, but paddling furiously underneath. They understand that everything about them is a leadership tool at their disposal: their voice, their stance, their mood, the speed of their walk, how they show up in the world. What they say and what they don’t say. What they do and what they don’t do.

So today – as much as it scares me to attempt it – I’m going to try and unpick leadership presence so that we might all learn a little more about it.

Leadership presence is about physical presence

'Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.' ~ Maya AngelouClick To Tweet

Leadership Presence


In her brilliant book Presence Amy Cuddy dedicates an entire chapter to what one of her readers called the “Starfish”. A pose where you stretch out like a starfish and make yourself as large/long as you can.


A ‘power’ pose works, not by intimidating other people, but by making you feel more confident. A ‘closed’ pose makes you feel fearful and timid. There is alarming evidence (alarming because it’s so deceptively simple) that the act of holding a power pose in the mirror will make you feel more confident, more powerful, and more ‘present’. It changes how you think, speak, and feel.

Leaders with presence know this.

So “starfish up”!


Closely related to posture is movement. Leaders with true presence tend to move in a very purposeful way. Even if they’re in a hurry, they don’t run – they know what impact their behaviour has on other people. Seeing your boss running somewhere instils a sense of panic. Of fear.

Instead leaders with strong presence tend to walk swiftly, all the time – whether they’re in a hurry of not. They don’t want to waste time, but they also know whatever it is will wait for them to arrive.

Body language

In their book The Definitive Book of Body LanguageBarbara and Allan Pease maintain that body language makes up a significant proportion of the communication message, but that most people do not know how to read it, or control it.

Leaders with presence often don’t need to know the ins and outs of body language. Their communication comes from a place of authenticity and consistency and their bodies tend to confirm what they are saying.


Your voice is a powerful tool. Pace, pitch, intonation and when you breathe all have an impact on how your spoken messages are received. And while singers learn how to maximise the power of their voice, most other people do not. They assume that what they have is what they’ve got, and there’s little they can do about it.

Leaders with presence know the power of their oral communication and practice it. They belong to an organisation like Toastmasters, and even if they don’t enjoy public speaking, they embrace it as an important tool of leadership.

Leadership presence is about emotional presence

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” ~ Daniel Goleman


How are you feeling right now? Are you happy? Are you sad? Are you tired? Are you enthusiastic? Are you bored?

How often do you actually pause and consider how you are actually feeling at that exact moment. Right now, I’m up at 5.30 am and I’ve already meditated and completed a 15 minute yoga workout… I’m feeling proud of myself. I’m also feeling slightly intimidated by this article – it has made a big promise!

Leaders with presence are in tune with their emotional state. This means that they can draw upon it for effect if they need to, they can be thoughtful about what activities they carry out at different times of the day. It also means they’re less likely to provide correctional feedback when they’re grumpy – they know that this seldom helps you.

Leadership Presence


When you are aware of your emotional state, you’re also far better equipped to exert control over it. Believe it or not, you have some degree of control over how you feel. This isn’t some ‘Pollyanna-ish’ delusion, based on ignoring reality, it’s about recognising something as simple as exerting choice. Tony Robbins in Awaken the Giant Within, for example, likes to talk about how he learned to substitute the word angry with “peeved”. The word was so much less powerful than angry that it actually calmed him down.

Leaders with presence have a few effective ways to exert control over their emotional state, especially unproductive emotions like anger, jealousy and resentment.

Leadership presence is about interpersonal presence


Unless you’re superhuman (which you probably aren’t) you rely on other people to get things done. Even if you aren’t yet in a management role, you need your co-workers to pull their weight and be effective for your team to be successful.

Leaders with presence lead from a place of love. They care deeply about the people they work with, and want to help them be successful and the best they can be.


I’ve spoken about listening quite recently. It’s a sorely under-utilised skill. And many leaders mistakenly believe that their position entitles them to more air-time!

Leaders with presence accepted a while ago that they don’t have all the answers, and that they need all the help they can get. They also know that the most powerful gift they can give to another person is the gift of listening. Properly.


The corollary to listening is speaking. And many leaders do too much of it. Myself included. But there is one important leadership trait that involves speaking… storytelling.

Many people in your organisation will struggle to create a connection between themselves and the purpose/mission of the organisation – how their individual contribution makes a difference. Or they won’t understand what the data means…

Leaders with presence understand that telling stories is the most effective way to reach people and help them feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

Leadership presence is about cognitive and intellectual presence


This tends to come naturally for many leaders, who were promoted due to their technical competence. But there is also a need for rigour in the disciplines of organisational leadership and management – not just the business.

Leaders with presence understand that they don’t need to be experts on every business process, product line or service… but they do need to be rigorous practitioners of the art of leadership, the skills of management and the tools of decision making and analysis.


I have observed that some leaders stop learning once they’ve ‘made it’ to the C-Suite.

Leaders with presence know that there’s always more to learn, and actively seek out new knowledge. The process of doing this challenges their pre-conceived ideas, updates their reasoning and triggers creativity and innovation.


Nobody can be truly confident that they know everything and can handle every situation that could arise.

But leaders with presence know that they can be confident about different things. That they can be confident that something probably will go wrong, but they’ll figure it out. That they don’t know everything, but they’ll learn it. That people are unpredictable, but they’ll cope

Leadership presence is about being present


Some leaders are constantly distracted or thinking about the next meeting or the next sales pitch… or their next promotion.

Leaders with presence are, well, present. They’re here right now. They may even have a mindfulness or meditation practice to help them with that…


What observations have you made about leaders with presence? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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One comment

  1. I think that a good leader is always present, even if they are not physically present the people they work with know how their leader will react to a situation and what would be their likely course of action. This means that they have very effectively conveyed their ideals to the people they work with everyday.

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