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Leading with Executive Presence: What can we learn from the Soldier and the Saint?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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By Jay Sullivan, Exec|Comm

When I think of Executive Presence, I think of two very different people I’ve had the privilege to meet. Both exemplify the ideals of what’s become known as “Servant Leadership,” that notion of leading from a place of humility with the emphasis on those being led. They came from very different backgrounds, and had their own unique roles in the world. Although they both had many attributes that gave them that gravitas we all seek as leaders, I thought it would be most helpful to you to focus on one aspect from each of them.

Simply Being There

Years ago, I conducted numerous training programs for the law firm of Patton Boggs (now knows as “Squire Patton Boggs”). At the time, Mike Nardotti was the partner in charge of the Learning & Development Committee at the firm. Mike came to the firm after five years as the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army, in charge of an enormous team of dedicated lawyers. He retired from the army with the rank of Major General. When Mike walked in the room, you knew you were in the presence of a leader.

For those of us who don’t have experience serving in the military, our impression of a general is formed by TV and the movies. Think of the difference between how a general is portrayed, compared to a drill sergeant. The drill sergeant is most often portrayed as the person shouting in the face of the new recruits, breaking people down so they could be rebuilt as soldiers. The general, by contrast, is portrayed as the calm, steely eyed, self-possessed leader, confident of his statements, while carrying the weight of the importance of his decisions.

Mike was present at the start of every program I taught for the firm. He greeted me, and every attendee, by name and with a smile and welcome. He said a few words about the program, telling everyone the importance of building their skills, of investing in themselves, and of the firm’s commitment to their growth. He spoke clearly and briefly. Mike was as busy a person as any partner at any law firm. But since he led the Learning & Development function, he took that administrative function seriously. He was physically present to those he served in that role. His presence at the start of every program told his associates, “I care about you. I care about your development. You are important.” Simple physical presence is the first step in executive presence.

Staying on Message

Years earlier, before I attended law school, I spent two years in Kingston, Jamaica, helping a small group of nuns run an orphanage. There aren’t many advantages to being the only man living at the convent, but every once in a while, a nice opportunity would present itself. In 1985, completely unannounced, Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta), came to Kingston to visit the small group of Missionaries of Charity, the order of Catholic nuns she had founded. The Sisters of Mercy I was living with at the time were invited to a reception to meet her at the Cardinal’s residence the evening she arrived. Since I was living at the convent at the time, the nuns allowed me to tag along.

About 150 people, mostly priests and sisters, filled the backyard at the Cardinal’s residence. Clearly, Mother Teresa had had a long and exhausting day, having flown halfway around the world, and then having spent the afternoon touring the facility where her sisters tended to the needs of Kingston’s poor. Yet she stood on the porch and spoke softly yet firmly, lovingly yet with great conviction, of the work that needs to be done to tend to God’s children. Clearly, she was preaching to the converted. Her words were of thanks, but also of the reminder of why everyone present was doing the work they were doing, whatever their particular mission. She knew that even the most stout-hearted needed reminding that their work mattered, needed reminding not only of the “what” but of the “why.” After brief, but poignant remarks, she stayed on the porch to greet each person, asking their name and about their role. I was last in line, so after we spoke briefly, she took my arm and I escorted her off the stage to her waiting van. She was 75 at the time, but walked quickly and with determination. Clearly, she wasn’t done for the evening.

Summary

What can we learn from the Major General and the Saint? First, physical presence matters. Get in front of your people. Make sure they hear your commitment to your ideas, to your ideals, and to them. Second, know what you stand for. Tie those convictions to the motivating forces for your audience. Leading isn’t about you as the leader; it’s about those you lead.

Originally Published on Forbes.com; Republished on Exec|Comm Blog

Tags:  Coaching  Communication Skills  Executive Presence  Leadership Skills  Life Skills 

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