I’m often asked to work with leaders to help them improve “leadership presence,” which is usually a catch-all phrase for intangible qualities of leadership that range from polishing their physical appearance to developing confidence to learning to be more interpersonally and politically astute.
In this article I would like to discuss the first quality someone must have to develop and sustain any of these other qualities, the simple art of being present—attentive to what is happening here and now.
I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but there are some ideas from that tradition that I find to be very useful for leaders.
One such idea is that most of our suffering comes from either rejecting what is (resistance) or trying to hold on to what was or lunging after what is not yet to be (grasping). Learning to reduce our resistance and experience the present moment, while also improving our ability to let go of that which has passed or will not be, is one of the cornerstones of an effective leader’s ability to be present.
Most of the time we are functioning mindlessly. Thoughts, sensations, and emotions are arising in us all the time. Much of the time we are not even aware of them—rather than being present, mentally we are somewhere else. This can happen whether we are sitting at our desk and just “zoning out” or whether we are, say, engaged in a conversation with a coworker. We may not notice, for example, that we are angry or anxious, or that our back hurts from sitting too long because our minds are preoccupied by thinking about something that happened earlier in the day or something that may happen later. Or, while our coworker talks we blankly nod our heads while we have mentally moved on to the next topic. But these things are happening to us and there can be consequences to not being attentive to them.
This ability of the mind to go elsewhere is not always a bad thing. It allows us to multitask by thinking about something more important in the midst of mundane activities. It also allows us to maintain our sanity in the midst of boring conversations.
But this ability also enables the resistance and grasping that can cause us to suffer.
Resistance happens when try to avoid something we don’t want to face by falling into our autopilot state (the repetitive, conditioned patterns of seemingly random thoughts and feelings) or give in to our mental tendencies such as rationalizing or blaming others. We may recognize that the conversation we are in is important but it is not something we want to deal with, so we drift off. Or, we allow an emotion such as anger to interrupt the conversation—finding fault in the other or attacking them in some way rather than calmly hearing the other person out and addressing their concerns.
Grasping is another way to ignore the present by trying to hold on to the past or an outdated and limiting belief. Life changes moment by moment but our minds want consistency. It tries to hold on to positive experiences (and sometimes even negative experiences) as a way of maintaining a feeling of consistency and permanence in the midst of the flux all around us. It also occurs when we start striving after some distraction that will take us away from a present moment that is unpleasant but must be dealt with.
In short, resistance is the unwillingness to deal with the moment we are experiencing; grasping is the attempt to hold on to something that is already gone or is not actually there.
The problem with resistance and grasping is that they are both, ultimately, futile. That which we are resisting tends to find its way to us eventually, usually as an even bigger problem or more-unpleasant experience due to the momentum it built up while we were resisting it. That which we are trying to hold onto eventually slips away, and we realized that we have missed what was happening in the meantime.
For leaders, both of these outcomes have serious consequences; we have a responsibility as leaders to be in the moment and addressing the world as it is. You can neither put your head in the sand or act as if reality were something else.
A skill that helps us get better at reducing both resistance and grasping and increasing our ability to be present is to improve our metacognition. Metacognition, according to a good definition in Wikipedia, is “’cognition about cognition,’ ‘thinking about thinking,’ ‘knowing about knowing,’ becoming ‘aware of one’s awareness,’ and higher-order thinking skills.”
The mindfulness techniques derived from Buddhist practices that are becoming increasingly popular in organizations these days address one element of metacognition in that they teach us to “become aware of our awareness” by learning to direct our attention and observe ourselves.
But true metacognition (and deeper Buddhist practices, for that matter), go well beyond this. Once we become aware of what we are experiencing we have to have the skills for processing it—to recognize the inadequacies of our limiting beliefs and how to change those beliefs; to understand our cognitive biases, how they undermine us, and how to correct for them; to recognize the errors in our logic and take steps to improve it.
Developing these skills takes effort, but it is possible and the payoffs in both our personal and professional lives are enormous. There are many mindfulness techniques that help us become “aware of our awareness,” and this site published by the Mayo Clinic is a great place to start. For the other metacognition skills I recommend developing a better understanding of your personality tendencies (for example, by learning more about your Ennea-type and instinctual biases) and learning more about cognitive biases and logic in my book “How to Think Well and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking”).
For all the cliches that abound about “being in the moment” and “being here now,” the first step toward greater leadership presence is working on being present, and you can start here and now.