Presence as Leadership Principle
A story from a dinner party Winston Churchill’s mother attended over a century ago illustrates what it means to be a charismatic leader
by Robert Mening
One of the greatest lessons in leadership comes from the Victorian era: Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were competing for the position of the prime minister of the United Kingdom. These two leaders went down in history, but with very contrasting personalities.
Not surprisingly to the people of that time, Benjamin Disraeli won the election.
Now, William Gladstone was a very clever and witty person. He was brilliant, obviously so, and he knew pretty much everything. Based on his wit and experience, he had what it took to win the election. What made the difference, however, was summed up by a woman who had dinner with both Disraeli and Gladstone a week before the election.
The lady both men dined with was Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother. When a journalist asked Jerome what her impression of the two men was, she responded:
“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”
Disraeli had spent the whole evening asking her questions and listening intently to her responses. He wanted to know everything about her, and he tried to steer the conversation toward her. Naturally, she talked — and we always feel good talking about ourselves.
Not surprisingly, Disraeli, the person who mastered the art of making other people feel important, won the election.
It wasn’t that Disraeli wasn’t as brilliant as Gladstone. He was. However, Disraeli had mastered the art of making other people feel brilliant, respected, and important — a key secret of charismatic leaders. This trait served Disraeli well, as Queen Victoria liked and supported him despite contrary advice from the people closest to her.
The hidden secret of charismatic leaders is presence.
When communicating with people, be truly present. Give them your undistracted and undivided attention, and instead of trying to showcase your brilliance and skills, carefully and intently listen to what they have to say. Get them to talk and truly listen. Even though your companion will have done more talking, they will end up liking you more because they feel respected.
Unfortunately, technology can contribute to a lack of presence among leaders, further dividing them from the people they lead. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, it was found that as many as 89% of people use their mobile devices during social activity with others. Not surprisingly, another Pew study found that 82% of adults believe that usage of mobile devices during social gatherings hurts the gathering.
The people you lead need to feel valued and respected to be totally committed to you, and this won’t happen if you’re constantly distracted when they try to communicate with you.
How to develop presence
Here are some tips to help you foster commitment among your followers by developing presence:
Great leaders are masters of the art of truly listening. Let people see that you truly care. Put away your cell phone. Don’t pretend to listen while really being elsewhere in your mind — most people will notice, and they will detest you for it.
Be free and relaxed, not imposing
True leaders inspire awe and commitment in others. They don’t impose it.
In your interactions with people that follow you, don’t impose yourself. Instead, be free and relaxed; people will only truly connect with you when they are free and relaxed, and a great way to make people feel relaxed with you is by being free and relaxed with them first.
Don’t ever try to appear superior, and don’t look down on people that follow you. When asked what kind of person Ronald Reagan was, Michael Deaver, his deputy chief of staff of 30 years, explained that he truly cared for everybody, irrespective of their status and position. He was free and relaxed with everyone, and never looked down on anyone.
Establish eye contact
Research has shown that establishing eye contact, especially when listening to others, creates a powerful sense of connection. It has also been revealed that establishing eye contact when talking to people makes you appear more confident, believable, and competent. Avoiding eye contact with people you lead often communicates that you are not truly present.
Make it about them
“Me, me, me!” surely does not a great leader make! When it’s all about you, it will be hard to get people to truly commit to your goals; when you make it about them, however, everything changes. When there are mistakes, take responsibility. When there are successes, share the credit with your team. And when you have goals you want your team to achieve, make it “our goal,” not “my goal.”
Make others feel special
Little things add up quickly. Remember people’s names and special occasions. Pay careful attention to them when they appear to be down, and cheer them up. Little things like these will make your team feel special and cared about, making them a lot more loyal to you.
Robert Mening is a web-developer, small business advisor and founder of WebsiteSetup.org. He regularly contributes to Adweek, About.com and other major blogs.