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Diana Jones, Author, Leadership Material: How Personal Experience Shapes Executive Presence

Now you are CEO or in the C-suite, you may think you have ‘made it’. In many ways you have. As Marshall Goldsmith writes “What got you there, won’t get you there” – “there” being ongoing success. Contexts change, a new chair, boss or peers arrive, or key players in your team leave. These events can throw up behaviors which you and others don’t like. You might lose your effectiveness in key settings or with new stakeholders.

Staying calm under stress is as difficult for leaders as it is for anyone else. Leaders with presence might well react emotionally to a given challenge—they are human, after all. This is where there is a difference. Leaders with presence both feel strongly and are able to activate their thinking. If their emotional response is too overwhelming, they stand still, give themselves room, and take small steps until they are able to think with a clear head. The key thing here is leaders with presence stay in relationship with those around them even in extreme circumstances.

Unless we are fortune-tellers, our contexts will continually throw up unplanned events. How many times have you worked alongside a brilliant leader who gives good advice but burns people with their acerbic wit, harsh criticisms, and judgments? What about yourself? Might you alienate people when you are under pressure, express hostility, and alienate board members, staff, or peers?

When leaders flip out and act overemotionally, they disturb people. They might shout, blame, be unresponsive and moody, or slap papers on the table. Those around them become anxious and fearful. It’s as if the leader puts up a wall between them and people around them, or they ‘push’ people away. The organization becomes unsettled. When the leader is steering the ship, you want to know whether they can keep it together. How can leaders remain even keeled?

Of course, feeling upset, frustrated, disappointed, or stressed is normal. The problems occur if you as leader are frequently upset and stressed, and when you act from your emotions without clear purpose or thinking. And then, you realize you have uncovered a default response which is not fit for purpose. What to do?  In uncovering a default response, you have identified a development area for you as a leader.

Personal Development for Professional Success

There is an illogical yet direct, predictable and positive relationship between personal learning and professional success. Leaders who are unable or unwilling to work well with people incur substantial business costs. The time spent sorting out people problems takes focus away from leading, implementing strategy, and reporting results. The emotional toll negatively affects organizational culture, engagement, reputation, and results.

Leaders can learn to listen, navigate conflicts, turn relationships around, run productive meetings, empathize, give free and frank advice and provide direction. Finding productive ways forward among conflict and difficulties is essential.

How do leaders learn?

The traditional approach to adult learning is too simplistic for organizations. Emphasizing information, technical skills, and content over behavior short-changes leaders and diminishes their effectiveness. When people skills are thought of as “soft,”“touchy-feely,” or “illogical,” behavioral learning is devalued. Thinking that skills and techniques preside over behavior and relationships is outdated.

Behavioral learning is holistic and enhances our social capacities.  It utilizes our intuition, experience, vision, and curiosity to integrate thinking and feeling with action. Applying insights, reversing roles, having meaningful conversations, developing trusted relationships rapidly, acting on what is important, and responding relevantly are the results of behavioral learning.

Leaders capacities to respond productively are what creates their track record and reputation. Leaders with overdeveloped default behaviors create emotional churn. People might find them technically brilliant but dislike working with them.

Fear of conflict, lack of empathy, an inability to express yourself simply—will trip you up. You need courage to recognize things aren’t working and be willing to listen to trusted friends, peers, and staff. By identifying development goals, your curiosity is activated, your psychology and physiology are reordered, and you expand your presence. By imagining going beyond what you already know, you have immediately expanded your capacities. By imagining fresh possibilities, you are in new territory. Things that once held you back or tripped you up are no longer in the front of your mind.


About the Author
Diana Jones is a leadership coach and advisor, and author. Her book Leadership Material: how personal experience shapes executive presence (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017).

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