Remember that jolt of energy that flicks a switch in your whole body, akin to electricity, when you are driving without full attention and a child runs out into the street, and you can only hit the brakes if you find your presence? Or think of the energy you feel if you are followed by a stalker and you need presence to outwit them. Or the surge of energy when you catch a stranger’s eye and share a moment. Or the moment you understand an idea, the clouds part in the mind and light enters – you can only be enlightened when you are present.
– Patsy Rodenburg, “Presence”
I was recently at a cocktail party, where I found myself talking about presence to complete strangers. It all started with the dreaded question:
“So, what do you do for a living?”
Given how many times this has happened in the past, you’d think that I would have nailed the answer by now. But, no. Not me. Instead of saying something simple and powerful, I started meekly:
“Well, I’m an organisation development consultant…”.
One look at my interlocutor and I knew that I might as well have said: “I’m a Nanotechnological Bioinformatics System Integration Researcher” or “A Curator of Non-Marine Molluscs”.
“Oh, how interesting”, he pronounced with a blank stare. “And what exactly does that mean?”, he added – already scanning the room for someone more interesting.
“Well, basically I help companies create a workplace that brings out the best in people…”, I carried on hopelessly.
“Well, yes, for example, a really big part of what I do is helping people become better leaders.”
Suddenly his face lit up with a spark of recognition: “Aaah, leadership, sure! So tell me – what’s the secret to being a good leader?”
Now, this is a question that I definitely don’t enjoy being asked. Not at a cocktail party, anyway. Mostly because, until very recently, the only honest answer that I could possibly think of was some version of: “The only secret is that there is no secret.” Turns out – not such a crowd-pleaser, especially when you have to shout it out over live jazz band playing “I’ve got you under my skin”!
In that moment, at the cocktail party, one of the many problems of modern society was staring me straight in the face: the easy fix and instant gratification culture with fast solutions to complex problems on which we used to work hard at in the past.
When people meet a nutritionist at a party and ask her about the secret to losing weight, they don’t really want her to say that it’s all about reducing their calorie intake and working out. Deep down inside they hope that she will lean in and say, preferably in a conspiratorial tone : “Oh, it’s very simple! Just drink a glass of apple vinegar with a dash of cayenne pepper before breakfast and the weight will drop off in an instant.”
Similarly, when people meet an organisational development consultant and ask her about how to be a good leader, they want a prescription and an easy fix too, just of a different kind.
So on the night of the cocktail party, I finally gave in and delivered the goods, saying with confidence, albeit enigmatically: “The secret to being a good leader is PRESENCE.”
To my defence, I wasn’t just trying to be witty or interesting at the expense of oversimplifying things. In fact, all my life experiences so far, including helping thousands of executives to become better leaders point in the direction of presence as the pre-requisite for being effective and successful at… well, virtually anything.
SO, WHAT IS PRESENCE?
Being present is thrilling, inspiring, absorbing, surprising and even frightening, all at the same time. It is the energy you feel when you know you are alive, the energy of those moments that writers write about, singers sing about, and the dying remember on their deathbeds. We all yearn to be present and to be met by others who are equally present. We are lonely without these encounters. Presence enables you to honour, understand and empathize with others. A leader’s presence inspires confidence in followers. A parent’s presence makes children feel cherished and secure. A lover’s presence thrills and satisfies the beloved. When fully present in your spiritual life, you encounter the divine.”
– Patsy Rotenburg, “Presence”
I don’t know of anyone who describes presence better than Patsy Rodenburg. Recognised as one of the world’s leading voice and acting coaches, Patsy worked with a number of great actors, including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Orlando Bloom, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, to name just a few. However, what made her widely accessible and known to the wider public are her books: “Speaking Shakespeare”, “The Right to Speak”, “The Need For Words”, “The Actor Speaks”, “Presence”, and “Power Presentation”.
In “Presence”, Patsy explains how human energy works and she introduces her readers to the three circles of energy.
First Circle: Circle of Self and Withdrawal
First circle energy is the energy of the past. It can be useful for introspection and reflection, but when overused it’s greatly limiting. People who spend most of their time in this circle are perceived as shy, withdrawn and self-centred. Their personal power is compromised and they are at danger of being ignored and sometimes even victimised. They often absorb other people’s energy, which comes across as draining and dull. Managers who live in first are not perceptive of what is happening around them because they live in their heads, instead of in the present moment. Their lack of presence in the now oftentimes makes them oblivious to the changing team dynamics, people’s frustrations and organisational politics.
Third Circle: Circle of Bluff and Force
This energy is outward moving and non-specific. The attention is on the outside but it’s not focused. Third circle energy might allow for a slightly better view of the situation than first circle energy, but the nuances will still go unnoticed. When in third, people can attract attention and make a favourable first impression. At a superficial level, third circle energy can seem effective – it tends to bring animation into the room and can get things done, often by forcing people into compliance. However, executives who spend most of their time in third rarely inspire others and fail to make them feel like they truly matter. Third circle leaders can be perceived by others as arrogant and over-bearing. When a leader operates from third, others feel inferior, unknown and irrelevant. Third circle is the “go, go, go” energy geared towards the future and unable to stand still to fully experience the present moment.
Second Circle: The Energy of Connecting
This is the circle of real leadership presence. It’s the energy of give and take, a spontaneous exchange that touches both the giver and the receiver. Here, the energy is focused, it moves outward, connects with the external object of our attention and receives energy back. A second circle leader influences others by allowing herself or himself to be influenced. When in second circle, we feel alert, notice details, are open and curious and acknowledge others presence. We are deeply rooted in the present moment. Patsy Rodenburg says: “In second circle you are noticed, heard, powerful and remembered”
To learn more about the second circle, see Patsy talk about it at Michael Howard Studios in NYC:
THE EXPERIENCING SELF AND THE REMEMBERING SELF
Second circle is the energy of presence in the moment, of participating in the experience rather thinking of the experience (first) or anticipating it (third).
In his book, “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” Daniel Kahneman, an Isreali-American psychologist, awarded Nobel Prize in 2002, talks about two selves we all have to deal with in our lives: the experiencing self and the remembering self.
He describes the experiencing self as the fast, intuitive, unconscious mode of thinking that operates in the present moment, focusing on the quality of our experience IN our life – living life rather than thinking about it. The remembering self is the slow, rational, conscious mode of thinking that tells the story of our experience, how we think ABOUT our experience.
The key challenge in bringing more second circle presence into our lives is that we are continuously hijacked by the remembering self – judging, evaluating, planning, obsessing, criticising, analysing, reminiscing about what happened. We continuously fall into the first or the third circle of energy and we lose our presence. We all know what it feels like to miss an experience altogether because we are so caught up in our thoughts (ever reached home driving on auto-pilot, without realising how you got there?). We all had an experience of someone not acknowledging us or not listening because they were so caught up in their own agenda. And we also know how destructive and detrimental to our leadership impact failing to be present and connect with people on a deeper level can be.
So if the secret to being a good leader is second circle presence, then how can it be improved? How can we create more balance between our experiencing self and remembering self?
Find that out in my next post.
© Agnieszka Bajer, 2016
Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Rodenburg, Patsy. (2007) Presence: How to Use Your Personal Energy for Success in Every Situation. London: Michael Joseph.