What is leadership presence? How did great leaders get it? Can it be learned? Whatever it is, it’s important. Without it, no one listens. Without it, our opinions get no respect. Without it, we’re not taken seriously. Without it, it’s hard to be a leader. Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar define presence in their book Leadership Presence as: “the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others.” Having a commitment to a clear and inspiring goal, while being aware of your own story and being attuned to the story of your listener are important elements of this presence. However, the physical things we do with our body when we are trying to communicate need to be considered additionally.

Vicki Hearne analyzed body language in the world of animal trainers in her book Adam’s Task. She observed the following three categories of people who visited the animals she worked with.
Hollywood Types: People with super-sized egos. They are self-absorbed and indifferent to where they are. Their pompous movements are ignored by the animals.

Researchers: They test their abstract propositions on the animals. These people are the most likely to be bitten around dogs, as a result of the dogs’ frustration at their combination of intrusiveness and unresponsiveness.

Animal Trainers: They exhibit acute 360-degree awareness of who they are and who else is there. In the way they move, they offer mute acknowledgement of the presence of the animals and fit into the spaces shaped by their perceptions. It’s this soft, acute, 360-degree awareness that leaders need to exhibit in relation to the people they are seeking to lead.

The Calm Assertiveness of real leadership implies energy that has been harnessed and that offers no direct threat to the audience. The calmness of the leader communicates an absence of hidden tensions with which the speaker is wrestling and might break out at any moment and hurt someone. Calm assertiveness means confirming in the outward demeanor that the leader is in control of his own fears and desires. He shows the audience that he is there fore them and gives them full attention.

Moving from Boring to Extraordinary

In terms of body language, leaders only need to take care of a limited number of basics to establish presence. Those basics can be mastered easily and quickly. An audience is always ready to listen to anyone who exhibits the body language of leadership. Of course, the subtleties and nuances to learn about body language and presence are infinite, but the immediate progress that can be made in taking care of the basics of the body language of leadership is enough for most leaders to move from «boring» to «extraordinary».

The Basics of Body Language

Eye Contact: Leadership is a highly interactive phenomenon that takes place via eye contact. Look directly at the audience, person by person, not sideways, which may be interpreted as shiftiness. Make eye contact with all the people in the room, also the ones in the back corners. You symbolize that you are ready to converse with everyone who is there.

Throw away your Notes: You can’t have eye contact with an audience if you are reading from notes. They also symbolize a physical barrier between you and the audience. Also, if you are reading from notes, you cannot be fully present. You are signaling that you aren't speaking for yourself, from your heart, if you read from notes. You are merely a messenger reading a message from another time and perhaps even another person. You are not fully present for the audience at this moment to interact with them when reading from notes.

Get out from behind any Podium: Podiums get in the way of direct bodily communication. Like any physical object between you and the audience, they block the flow of psychic energy. The audience may see you as hiding from them.

Use Gesture: Gestures signify that it’s not just your mind communicating but that your whole body is behind what you’re saying. Make sure your gestures are in sync with what you are saying. Gestures serve as a visual punctuation to the words. They should also reflect contagious energy and enthusiasm. Stiff gestures may be interpreted as inner tension and lack of resolution. Gestures should reflect calm assertiveness, signifying personal mastery of your message.

Plant your Feet firmly on the Ground and Face the Audience openly: Walking around can be massively distracting. Wiggling your toes can help preventing yourself from doing so. Walking from side to side across the speaker’s platform can be interpreted as restlessness, lack of calmness, and even a hidden wish to quit the room. If you must move, then move toward the audience to indicate a wish to be closer and more interactive with them. You can choose different individuals in the audience and move toward them successively. This will be interpreted as a wish to connect and engage, rather than escape. Maintain an open Body Stance. Keep your body relaxed, calm, assertive, with a total focus on the audience and square shoulders. You signify with your body position that you are there for them and therefore they will be there for you.

These elements may sound trivial, but when respected these simple principles can make a big difference on the impact a leader has on his audience. We often put so much time into the content of what we are saying, that we don’t allow time to work on how we are going to say it. But if we don’t sound like we mean it, our presentation is going nowhere. How we present our ideas is going to be a huge part of determining whether our ideas are accepted or ignored!

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