Leadership presence and what it can offer in difficult times

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What does it actually mean to have leadership presence and how important is it for leaders to establish a presence, especially in current times? 

Meet Bee James, our Director of Community

Bee started out as an actor, and had a strong 18 year career in the arts, prior to joining Olivier Mythodrama. 

She met Richard Olivier, our founder, when she  was starring in A Winter's Tale at the opening of The Globe Theatre in London.
Around this time, Richard hosted a workshop on A Winter's Tale, drawing on some of the themes from the play, as an early investigation into leadership and how Shakespeare's work can transform organisations.

Bee felt really inspired by the idea of bringing these stories alive to people who were working in the real world. She saw how people recognised their own personal journeys within the themes and recognised the stories in themselves, their colleagues and the organisation that they were working for. 

This opened up a whole new world for Bee - taking a piece of the play and working with people and seeing just how it transforms and touches people in their everyday life. 

Following the birth of her third child and her final season at The Globe, Bee joined Olivier Mythodrama officially in 2003 and started her journey with the organisation, initially as a Programme Leader delivering the work.

Here we explore the idea of leadership presence, why it is important (especially during the difficult times of 2020), the challenges leaders can have with achieving it and a look into authentic leadership:

Leaders have a big role to play in leading their workforce through life, post pandemic - how important is it for leaders to establish a presence during this time?

There are so many pressures on leaders, and more so now than ever before, to provide answers, clarity and certainty for people and to positively lead the way.

To me, this feels like almost an outdated form of leadership. Pre-pandemic things were beginning to change and now it has been forced to change, as no one can do that right now, we cannot provide definite answers in the current situation we are living in.

A lot of the time, the leaders we work with, are firefighting - they have a lot going on and a lot to deal with. When you are caught up in that environment, you tend to be very reactive and when you are in that state you are not present - it is complete fight or flight.. 

That way of being is completely unsustainable, if you do it for a long period of time, you are in danger of complete burnout which is not good for you, the organisation or your employees. 

When you think about leaders that you admire, they are, most of the time, people that are available and who have a quality of attention so that you feel, even when just greeting you, that they are really there, in that moment. When they walk into the room there is a feeling of settling and relief - that they have arrived - this is all around presence.

A good leader is able to be conscious at any given time of both their internal and external state and what that projects and means for their leadership style. By being present in themselves,  if they start to feel tense, resulting in a shift in their physical, they will be self-aware and able to make changes to put people at ease. 

We feel what our leader feels, if they are feeling anxious and stressed, we feel that too, both psychologically and physically. Therefore there is a view that leaders have a responsibility to practice grounding and breathing, allowing themselves to arrive as it has such a big impact on everyone around them that is looking for strong leadership. 

If a leader is present, they can listen, make a good enough decision about what might need to happen next and handle a situation in a calm manner. But if they are caught up in the fire fighting, it is impossible to pick up on these things, think rationally and deliver. It can really have a negative impact on their leadership style and how others view them.

With our presence learning at Olivier Mythodrama,  we are helping people to understand that to move from this reacting place to a more responsive place - when we are responding to an event or a crisis, that it is a felt experience. You feel safer around a leader that is coming from a place of presence rather than the reactive, chaotic place.

With such uncertainty due to COVID-19 and a real pressure for leaders to come up with answers, it is more important than ever for people to practice presence. 

What are the common challenges individuals have with achieving leadership presence?

Embracing the concept of presence is a real commitment and it takes practice - it isn’t something that can come naturally in a few days. 

It can start small such as starting every meeting with a few minutes silence to reset and settle. But the main challenge we often hear is around time - people recognise the value and importance but do not feel they have the time to dedicate to the practice. 

We can refer to a famous Ghandi quote with this:

 “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

When the environment around you is pressurised and busy - it is in fact the time that you need to practice presence the most.  

I would say changing a working culture can also be a challenge for some organisations, particularly those operating in a more warrior style. To try and introduce this softer skills approach may be met with some resistance. 

How important is feedback and communication between a leader and employees for success?

When you embrace and embody this practice, it gives people permission to do the same. The best piece of communication is by really living it yourself 

Another quality that is so key in leadership,  is the ability to listen. In the business world things are traditionally solution based, but to allow yourself to listen to others, will have a profound impact on the working culture. When people feel heard and understood they become more motivated and inspired in the workplace. 

Leaders are also currently being faced with trigger points for their own fear and uncertainty during the pandemic. We are living in times that are hugely unsettling for everyone, no one has the answers or view of what the future will bring. 

Therefore, it is really essential that leaders have an awareness of their own feelings and emotions so that they can then have the capacity and authenticity to speak to their employees about theirs, and relate to them on a human level. 

Would you say people are wired to be leaders with a strong presence or can everyone develop and embody the behaviours? 

Absolutely, everyone can develop this through practice - ultimately our bodies and nervous system do not want to be in a state of anxiety and stress. 

We are born to feel regulated, that our breath is settled, we are comfortable, relaxed - this is when we perform our best. 

Developing a blend of presence and authenticity is an important part of being a successful leader and one that we can all take the time to perfect. 

We talk more about the idea of present leadership in our free Henry V programme, taking place on Thursday 22 October. Register to join us for this free thought leadership event.