Presence… The Real X-Factor

May 4, 2010

Many executives, particularly the more reflective and quiet types, believe they need to develop “charisma” in order to better sell themselves and their ideas. Charisma is defined as a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion. But charisma is an illusion – great leaders have moved beyond charisma and possess deep presence. Presence is the ability to engage fully and completely because you project empathy, not your ego.

Western style charisma is tied to ideology and emotions. The charismatic speaker sells with passion and conviction but always from a decided point of view. Though inspirational, the listener is rarely changed, long term. Perhaps the listener is entertained and or even feels more confident. But this confidence is often the result of the listener projecting his or her own ego onto the speaker. The impact is temporary; the listener quickly returns to baseline levels of their core personality.

Unconsciously, we are drawn to presence. Even when an audience disagrees with someone’s perspectives or values, if the speaker taps into emotions by empathizing and finding ways to resonate, the audience moves psychologically toward them. Several of our firm’s CEO clients call presence the “X” Factor. Leaders with great presence include Mahatma Gandhi and Pope Francis. It is not charisma but the deep connection with their audience that is so remarkable.

When researching presence we found something surprising. Writers only list factors that (supposedly) contribute or correlate with presence. Factors include body language, demeanor, projecting gravitas, confidence and poise. But these descriptions only relate to the speaker. How can this be accurate? There must be both a speaker to send energy and a listener to receive energy. If a speaker has no audience, then presence is meaningless.

Neuroscientists would describe presence differently. Recent research reveals how one person’s brain creates presence in another person’s brain. Brains possess special neurons, called mirror neurons. Feelings cause these mirror neurons to fire. When a speaker fires mirror neurons, and the listener fires mirror neurons back, chemistry occurs. Both speaker and listener reciprocate emotions and sensations forming a free flowing, open loop. When in-sync, people’s brains light up in the exact same cortical areas.

Neuroscientists also have shown that watching an action and performing an action also elicits the same feelings. For example, when a speaker elevates their arm in a triumphal pump, you experience the emotion of conquest too. We are hard wired, as a species, to see the similarities between the speaker and ourselves…but we have to want to see the similarities.

Let us look at the most visible example of charisma today, Donald Trump. Watch his enthusiastic audiences; they are enthralled. At these rallies, people’s brains are all lit up together, quite literally. This group brain chemistry provides the feeling of being emotionally bonded. Group dynamics are powerful. People are in the moment; the speaker is in the same moment. But would Trump’s message sell with a Bernie Sanders crowd? Probably not. Trump is not emotionally in-sync with Sander’s audience; the audience wouldn’t allow him to be. No open loop system is generated; therefore no presence is created. The speaker’s message will not and indeed cannot resonate.

In today’s world, it is presence that executives really seek – the ability to be with others creating an open loop, respective interchange that leads to creative innovation. Driving innovation and creativity is the real by-product of a leader exhibiting presence over charisma. Step back and ask the question: “who holds the deeper conversation, a charismatic leader or a leader with presence”? We contend that it is presence that drives bigger and more meaningful dialogues.

In order to increase presence, you must first have presence within. This means that you are able to internally experience confidence, non-judgmental energy that is quiet, yet powerful. Everyone is capable of reaching this mental state quickly. Try this ten-second exercise; its purpose is to prove that you can be fully present with yourself, totally confident, authentic and relaxed. When done effectively, you are more equipped to replicate that feeling with others.

Take a relaxing breath. Fill yourself with positive energy. Now, visualize, in your mind’s eye, three years from exactly right now… where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing, precisely, three years from now.

If you effectively did the exercise, we predict that you felt a sense of inner peace and contentment. Presence is connecting to people the way you just connected with yourself. No fear or anxiety…just harmony, authenticity and openness. Did you notice how relaxed and receptive you were too? This is what to strive for in interpersonal interactions. Charisma is for politicians; presence is for genuine leadership.

Remember this exercise when in front of an audience or going into an important meeting. The goal is for your audience to be part of your psyche, and for you to be a part of theirs. When you are peacefully authentic you will notice a real difference in your interactions. You will talk more from your heart, be less emotional, and listen better. You don’t have to be Mahatma Gandhi or the Pope to have presence; you already have it within you!

George Watts

Laurie Blazek

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