Leadership Presence

At some point in your career you may have experienced a leader who we say has ‘presence’. What is ‘presence’? Are some lucky people born with it? Can it be learned?

We gravitate naturally to leaders with ‘presence’. They seem to have some intangible quality that draws us to them. They engender trust much more quickly than we would expect. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We are willing to follow them; not blindly, but much more readily than with others we know who are in leadership positions.

What is it that creates this attractive ‘presence’ that serves them so well as leaders?

It’s not their intelligence. There are lots of intelligent people who we’d never follow.

It’s not their way with words because there are many glib tongued educators that we would never trust as leaders.

It’s not their sense of humor, or their good looks, or their emotional IQ.

All of these qualities may be found in a leader with ‘presence’; but there is another domain that figures in greatly and that is the domain of the body.

The tag line for my blog and web page is:

‘Learning is a journey of the body, mind. and the heart.”

So is leading.

Leadership books often talk about matters of the mind and heart; but rarely speak of the body, so let’s examine the importance of having the ‘body of a leader’.

A Superintendent of schools addresses his administrative leadership team at the beginning of the school year, his shoulders are tense, his voice high and tight, and his breath short. No matter what words he speaks, his listeners are unconsciously hearing another message…”I am not grounded. I am saying things that are not coming from my heart.” The Superintendent’s body is not building trust. It was working against him.

A leader avoids eye contact and thus communicates that he isn’t fully engaged. It seems like he is hiding something. Unconsciously, I might ask myself, why would I want to trust someone who isn’t fully engaged, someone who seems to be hiding something?

A leader stands with his shoulders rounded and bowed in a concave circle. He sends a message of timidity.


A leader has a body that is stiff and inflexible. Unknowingly he is communicating stiffness and inflexibility to others.

A building principal is full of distracting winks, nods, and pats on the back. He creates a feeling in some that he isn’t really serious and grounded in his beliefs and actions.


A longtime Assistant Superintendent  holds his chin out and high; giving off just a whiff of arrogance.

There are so many leaders who seem totally disconnected from their bodies, as if it were only a vehicle to carry their heads from place to place.

When a leader doesn’t face you straight on when they are talking; the message may be that I’m busy and I’m not really listening to you.

There are many, many other ways that our bodies communicate messages to others. Our bodies are windows to our hearts and minds. If we are truly grounded in our purpose, if we are authentic, present, open, and connected to others; our bodies will communicate this. When our bodies, hearts, and minds are aligned and in sync, then we are living from the ‘sweet spot’. We have leadership presence. We embody what we believe. Unconsciously, others feel it, and it helps to build trust more quickly.

I believe strongly that we can develop and build an effective leadership presence. It takes a deep commitment and quite a bit of practice. Often it takes the help of a leadership coach or a committed friend; but it can be done.

If we want to transform education, we will need leaders who not only know what changes need to be made; but embody their beliefs so that they are able to inspire and motivate others to take action and to make difficult changes.



6 thoughts on “Leadership Presence

  1. Nice job, Peter. Just finished reading Outliers, which you may have addressed during some period of your writing. Being able to communicate may be the link between “the body” and leadership. Just got back from Mohonk and I was thanking you for all that you did to make that happen. My feet were off the ground for 24 hours and that, among other things, are part of your legacy.


  2. Lou,
    Great to hear from you. Glad the Mohonk sessions are still inspiring folks. I’m fortunate to be working with some great educators this year. The journey is wonderful. Let’s get together for lunch.

  3. Pete

    I agree that we often overlook the importance of the body in leadership. You connection of the body to “presence” is great.

    I suggest that you may want to expand this a bit. “Presence” as defined is the state of being present with someone. You state very eloquently the need for us to be connect to our body so that we are connected to others.

    It seems to me that we are also called to be “present” in the other aspects of our being. In terms of our thoughts, we are called to still them as we connect with others so that our thinking does not distract us from our connection. We are called to be aware of our emotional nature so that it doesn’t impact our ability to listen or elicit a reaction from others.

    Again I applaud you bringing what I consider the most important area of focus as leaders. For as we pay attention to our presence we learn so much about ourselves and others.

  4. Thomas,
    You make a good point. Sometimes we think so much that it gets in our way. In my Aikido practice we train to act in the moment. This allows us to adjust to the unique attributes of our partner and to act on the possibilities that present themselves. Excessive mind chatter makes effective action difficult and puts an unnecessary layer between us and others.

  5. Pete,

    A very meaningful article on leadership Presence. I also liked Thomas’ comment because too often leaders do not look you in the eye when you speak to them

    I try never to do that with students becauseI know how important it is for them to have my attention.

    It also seems to me that most of us don’t make eye contact unless we want or need something from someone.

    Good thoughts for me!


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