Presence: What Actors Have That Leaders Need
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts . . .
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Great actors have it. Great political leaders have it too. As do
great business executives. Laurence Olivier. Meryl Streep. Marlon
Brando. Katharine Hepburn. Martin Luther King, Jr. Eleanor Roosevelt.
John F. Kennedy. Gandhi. Winston Churchill. Alfred P. Sloan. Oprah
But it's not limited to people in mighty positions. Your local pizza
guy may have it. Your doctor may have it. Your daughter's piano teacher
may have it too.
All these people -- well known or not -- are compelling individuals
who attract your attention almost effortlessly. They have something, a
magnetism that pulls others to them.
When they enter the room, the energy level rises. You perk up, stop
what you're doing, and focus on them. You expect something interesting
to happen. It's as though a spotlight shines on them.
What is it they have?
They have presence.
In the eyes of most people, it's the ability to command the
attention of others. Peter Brook, the eminent English stage director,
expressed it this way:
One actor can stand motionless on the stage and rivet our attention
while another does not interest us at all. What's the difference?
What other words, besides presence, come to mind when you
think of these people? Here are the words we hear most often when we
ask that question in our workshops: Inspiring. Motivating.
Commanding. Energized. Credible. Focused. Confident. Compelling.
Kathy tells this story about working with an aspiring actor:
In the mid-1980s I played Hypatia in a production of George
Bernard Shaw's Misalliance at the New Repertory Theatre. A
young actor, playing a relatively minor role, had caught my attention
in rehearsals but I was completely unprepared for what happened on
He stepped out on stage and simply seized the room. He was
playing the part of the gunner who popped up out of a Turkish bath
where he had been hiding. Without saying a word, he was absolutely
hilarious. It felt like a full minute before he even opened his mouth
and the audience was absolutely riveted by him and when he finally
delivered his line there was another twenty-second round of laughter.
I remember the director, Larry Lane, commenting, "This guy
really has what it takes to be a big success." It turns out Larry was
right. The actor's name was Oliver Platt and he went on to make a name
in films like Working Girl, Bulworth, and Indecent Proposal, as well as on television, including an Emmy-nominated role on The
Presence doesn't have to be a billion-watt nuclear reactor. While
some people, like Oliver Platt, can "fill" an entire room or
auditorium, the presence of others may not be so large. But it's no
less genuine, for these people may be great conversationalists, or they
may lead great meetings. Even some actors who have great presence in an
intimate medium like movies or television don't have that ability to
fill an auditorium. And some great stage actors have trouble "pulling
it back" for television or a movie.
Still, whether their presence is large or more intimate, they have
it, and when you look at them, it may be with a pang of envy.
Does everyone want to be a billion-watt reactor? Most of us don't
seek to be center of attention all the time. But when we join a group
or enter a room, we want our arrival acknowledged. When we speak, we
want others to listen. When we offer an opinion, we want it treated
with respect. We want to be taken seriously. We want our existence to
have weight and substance for others.
It's the same thing, just not writ quite so large. We all want
presence because no one wants to be ignored.
What is presence?
A moment ago we said most people think of presence as the ability to
command the attention of others. But "commanding attention" is only one
outcome of presence, not its essence or even its most valuable outcome.
We prefer to think of presence in a different --and deeper -- way.
For us, presence is the ability to connect authentically with the
thoughts and feelings of others. Most people think you are
born with presence, or without it, or that circumstances lead you, if
you're lucky, to develop it at an early age. And if the right
circumstances never quite align? Well, too bad.
Fortunately, that's not the case. Presence is the result of certain
ongoing choices you make, actions you take or fail to take. In fact,
presence is a set of skills, both internal and external, that virtually
anyone can develop and improve.
However, when we say anyone can improve his or her presence, we
don't mean it's an easy task. It requires you to give up habitual
patterns of behavior that you maintain because they make you feel safe.
Developing presence will require you to go places and do things that
feel uncomfortable, at least initially. Given that hurdle, we're
absolutely convinced anyone can develop his or her presence.
The premise of this book is that presence can be developed and
you will be a more effective leader when you invest some time and
energy toward that goal. Our purpose in writing it is to describe how
anyone, including you, can increase your presence.
We know people can develop presence because we have been helping
leaders do it for over a decade. Thousands of managers and leaders have
gone through our workshops, or worked with us in one-on-one coaching,
and improved their ability to connect with others.
More than just skin deep
Let's confront an assumption you may be making.
This is not a book about simply making a better
impression. It's not the behavioral counterpart of Dress for Success.
Presence includes these things, and anyone working to
develop more presence will pay attention to them, because others pay
attention to them, but true presence goes far beyond such
Just because you've won the lead in a play or a
leadership title at work doesn't mean you automatically hold any more
sway over your audience or your people. It is your "performance," in
both the theatrical and the organizational sense, that will grant you
the authority the title or role implies. The presence you bring to your
role -- how you show up, how you connect, how you speak, listen, act --
every move you make on the corporate or real stage, combine to create
the impact you have.
Presence comes from within. It begins with an
inner state, which leads to a series of external behaviors. Sure, you
can put on the behaviors, but by themselves they'll lack something
essential. They'll be hollow noise and nothing else. We've all heard
politicians say, "I feel your pain," when we know they're simply saying
what they think we want to hear. Compare that to Martin Luther King,
Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, which obviously sprang from his deeply
held beliefs and motivated a generation to overturn four hundred years
of assumptions and behaviors.
Presence varies with each individual. In our workshops
we never use a cookie-cutter approach; rather, we help each person
discover his or her own unique presence in all its richness and
Learning from theater
The second reason we know presence can be developed is
that there exists a whole group of people who work diligently and
successfully to develop it. That group of people is actors, and their
success, even their livelihood, depends on presence. They must excite
us when they step onstage, or they will fail. For the actor and
performer, presence is not a happy accident of genetics or upbringing,
it's the result of training and practice. We will draw heavily on
the acting profession for concrete principles, practices, and stories
about the development of presence.
At this point you may be thinking what can "serious"
business leaders or teachers or politicians or government managers hope
to learn from actors? Sure, they can learn how to speak better, to
project their voices, to stand up straight. But actors play for a
living. They pretend to be other people. What could they know about the
"real" world that a lawyer or a Fortune 500 CEO doesn't?
Think about the last time you were really moved by an
actor in a live theatrical performance, a movie, or even a television
program. We mean really moved to feel something deeply, to understand
something more completely, to think about something from a new
perspective or even, perhaps, to change your mind about something. Now
think about the last time you were truly moved in the same way by a
presentation made by a leader in your organization. We're not saying
moved to tears but moved to understand a different point of view, be
excited about a new possibility, or be motivated to adapt and grow with
Of course the goal of the actor or the leader in these
instances is the same -- to connect with you in some fundamental way.
Unfortunately most people will say that this experience is much more
rare at the office than it is at the movies.
Copyright © 2003 Kathy
Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, cofounders of The Ariel
Group, have instructed more than 30,000 executives from hundreds of
companies through their workshops. Halpern performs worldwide as an
actress and singer and has taught music students at Harvard University.
Lubar is a professional actress and cofounder of Boston's New Repertory
Theater. Both live in the Boston area, where The Ariel Group is based.
For more information, please visit the author's Web
site at: www.arielgroup.com