When I was much younger, I had the opportunity to interview, research and write about thousands of world leaders as the senior editor of a magazine focused on leadership studies.
In this capacity, I had the chance to meet and share lengthy conversations with people like Sir Richard Branson, so I was able to see celebrity leadership up close and personal—face to face. I walked away from the experience with a sense of amazement—because genuine leadership is really very simple. It all boils down to one word, though this will take some real explaining on my part.
The word is humility.
So, let me start by explaining myself, because I know I have a lot of explaining to do.
If you do a search on executive presence you will find all sorts of tips from every business magazine and executive coach under the sun, with advice on staying calm, learning to meditate, developing a sense of self-awareness, focusing on deep breathing, going to toastmasters, learning how to articulate, learning how to walk with shoulders back and head held high like a king or queen, and on and on.
While all of these things might prove helpful to certain people in certain situations it is not necessary to “walk like a king or a queen” in order to have people respect you.
It is vitally important, however, to remember the following adage, which has been attributed to many different people through the years. It goes something like this:
“People may forget what you say, they may forget what you do, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”
There is no more important focal point for leadership and executive presence than that.
Let’s break it down, step by step, until we arrive at “executive presence.”
1. Find Reasons to Be Proud of Yourself. Before we talk about this, we need to talk about something else—the psychological phenomenon called “projection.” Simply put, all human beings treat other human beings the same way they treat themselves. In other words, people who doubt themselves, hate themselves, fail to appreciate themselves, or lack confidence in themselves display exactly the same feelings towards everyone they meet, even if they try and fake humility, or attempt to fake “emotional intelligence.”
Reading a book on emotional intelligence is a total waste of time if you hate yourself and everyone else too. Nothing will save you. On the other hand, people who love and appreciate themselves for who they are in the moment—mistakes and all—tend to treat others the same way. Great leaders don’t rest on their laurels and they want to improve every day, but they don’t wallow in self-criticism. They have learned to laugh at their human foibles and they have learned to love themselves as they love others. There is no more important secret to executive presence or leadership than this, period. If you hear the hearty sound of good-natured laughter, and others laughing along you have heard the sound of leadership.
Be proud of yourself—and do those things that allow you to be proud of yourself. Treat yourself and others well. And laugh a lot.
2. Slam the Door on Self Doubt. Leadership and executive presence have no room for self doubt. But this one is tricky. This advice does not mean you should not be on guard for mistakes, learn from mistakes, or look for a better way of doing things. It simply means you are not allowed to dwell on mistakes. The very heart of “Agile Leadership” says that you create environments where people are allowed to experiment and make mistakes or fail. That includes you. Word of caution though: never underestimate the threat of petty people. They do pop up from time to time. Throughout your career, you will be blindsided out of nowhere by small-minded, petty, mean-spirited people and even conspiratorial packs of mean-spirited people who will seek to diminish you, belittle you, or derail you. We don’t have time in this column to explain why. Let’s just say it’s part of the test. But you can’t listen to these voices. There is nothing wrong with you. In this moment, you are right for the moment. You are as you should be for this moment, though you will improve over time for tomorrow’s moment. But for today, stay focused. Love yourself. Love others. Ignore the trolls.
3. Project Humility. When I met Richard Branson for the first time many years ago, I was absolutely dumbfounded and blown away by his air of good-natured, modest and down-to-earth humility, and how comfortable he seemed to be in his own skin. Absolutely zero artifice. One hundred percent natural-ness. He walked to my office in New York from his hotel on Sixth Avenue carrying nothing but an umbrella. I don’t believe he was even wearing a watch. But here is what amazed me. When I asked him how much time he had he said: “As much time as it takes. No certain schedule.” Then, he started to ask me a million questions about myself, before I had a chance to start asking about him. And with every detail I shared, he had some response like: “That’s great! How fantastic! What an accomplishment! That’s wonderful!” Within five minutes he had me feeling like THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. Then it occurred to me: “What a minute. I’m supposed to be interviewing you!” To which he just smiled. But I got it. I saw his magic. He makes OTHER people feel special and important, and in doing so he has a worldwide legion of people who would follow him anywhere and do anything for him. And he has absolutely no need to be anything other than exactly what he is.
4. Share Your Story and Let Others Share Theirs. Every person who has ever accomplished anything of note can share what I call “The Amazing Story.” This is a memory of a time (or multiple times) when it seemed that the whole world was falling apart, but against all odds, the person managed to struggle, overcome those insurmountable obstacles and win. Everybody has one—and your job is to get it out of them. Sure enough, you have one of your own. And we need to hear it. Better yet—write it down! Commit it to paper, as they say. Share it. Who knows, it may get made into a movie. It’s the stuff human beings live for—The Great Story. The Story of Rising Above. These are the stories that makes us tick.
So here is the most important secret of leadership I can share:
Get to know your people really well. Share your story or stories with them. But just like Richard Branson, put the spotlight on them. Let them share their stories. Show interest. Show appreciation. Let them be the hero.
In doing so, you will have done a wonderful and magical thing. You will allow them to see—maybe for the first time in years—the person that they have always wanted others to see. You will help them see the hero that lies within themselves.
And the moment you do that, you will have achieved an executive presence that will last forever in their hearts and minds. Because they will never, ever forget the way you made them feel. They will then overlook any faults or foibles you may have, they will love you for who you are, and they will follow you to the top of any mountain.
And you won’t even have to take a deep breathing class.