The Power of Presence: Moving Beyond Just Showing Up and Being Seen

Shawn Umbrell
Oct 14 · 5 min read
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I love that I get to interact with and learn from great leaders. Corporate entrepreneurs, coaches, military professionals, pastors, administrators, and educators…I enjoy hearing their stories and sharing mine. Learning from great leaders never gets old. But lately, something’s been off. I’ve noticed a decline in the value of presence on the part of some leaders. Maybe it’s the challenges of the current environment, an increased reliance on technology to communicate, or the increasing demands of leaders’ time. Whatever it is, we need to fix it.

Presence is a powerful tool in the hands of a leader. But just exactly what is presence? Drawing from the Army leadership manual, “presence means more than showing up and being seen.” “Presence represents who leaders are and what they stand for.” The best leaders understand this and use their presence for the good of their team.

Of course, great leaders are also humble. But humbleness, despite all of its positive benefits for leaders, may also contribute to diminished value of presence. Let me explain. Humble leaders often underestimate the value of their presence amongst the people they lead because they are so closely aligned with them. They see themselves just like everybody else and they forget how impactful their words and actions can be on the people they are responsible for. Leaders aren’t better than their people, but their presence matters more.

But let’s be honest. There’s no excuse…quarantine, busyness, humbleness…for neglecting our responsibilities as leaders. Leaders must recognize that exercising presence isn’t an option. It’s an obligation. When exercising presence, consider these five lessons I learned from some of the best.

1. Recognize that your presence is an opportunity to acknowledge the accomplishments of your team. Leaders are busy. Their schedules are packed. But recognizing the accomplishments or hard work of your people takes just seconds. No formal ceremonies necessary. Whether it’s simply peeking your head into a team member’s office when you’re in the area to compliment them for something you heard about or acknowledging the entire team at the conclusion of a meeting, never pass up an opportunity to give praise. Team members need to know that they add value to the team. Nobody reinforces that value better than the leader.

2. …but never leave a deficiency unaddressed. Standards exist for a reason. Have the courage to enforce them. Nobody says you have to be a jerk when you do, but don’t simply turn a blind eye. You should never grow tired of enforcing standards…even the same ones over and over. By enforcing high standards, you will solidify expectations as well as empower and encourage your subordinate leaders and team members to do the same. No standard is too small to enforce.

3. Recognize that your presence is an opportunity to reinforce your vision and to share information of value with others. Nobody understands your vision for the organization and how to communicate it better than you. You have the context and can adapt your communication style to the circumstances better than anyone. The more you share it, the more it will resonate with those you lead. Additionally, we’ve all heard it said that information is power. Most often, leaders are the ones with the most current and relevant information. When you have it, share it. Don’t keep it to yourself. This isn’t to suggest that you should share sensitive information with those who shouldn’t have it, but you ought to always share information that is relevant and useful to the team we lead. By doing so you help your team get speed and you strengthen the trust bond with those you lead. Don’t assume that “the word” has made its way down to every member of your team.

4. Recognize that your presence signals safety and assurance in difficult times. When adversity or change increases, so too should your presence. You don’t need to say anything if words won’t suffice. Your demeanor of confidence and compassion may carry the day and set the example for your team members to follow. Everyone handles change and adversity differently. Some may feel fearful or even question their future on the team. “Should I stay, or should I go?” Don’t pass the buck to your subordinate leaders to address the challenge alone. Your presence and willingness to address the issues will reinforce your commitment to the team and its successful navigation of the challenges it faces.

5. Never opt out of your responsibility to lead. In the Army, we stressed the importance of “showing up on time, in the right uniform, and with the right attitude.” This is expected of everyone, no matter the profession. But far more is demanded of leaders. Have you ever experienced a moment when your leader walked into one of your meetings unannounced and said, “Don’t mind me?” “Pretend like I’m not even here.” Here’s the thing, it’s impossible to pretend like the leader isn’t in the room. In fact, it’s likely that those in the room hope to hear from them. When great leaders are present, they make an effort to add value.

“Yeah, but…” I know. Things are a bit challenging right now with regard to assembling. But if that’s what you still think about presence, then I’ve failed to make the point. Exercising presence has far less to do with where you are than it does with what you are doing. One of the best leaders I ever served with introduced me to what he called “leader notes.” When his ability to be physically present decreased, his communication (especially in written form) increased. Leader notes. He wrote several of them with great effect. No matter where he was, he still found ways to lead and impact the organization for the better.

Leaders, your presence matters now more than ever. Are you a leader of presence? If not, I challenge you to become one. For some, it may be to get out of the office and circulate more often. The worst thing that could happen is that you gain a better sense of your team’s climate. Is it what you intended? For others, it may be demonstrating the courage necessary to make an on the spot correction. The worst thing that could happen is that your team moves a bit closer to excellence. No matter what it is for you, be a leader of presence.

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