Organization Development

Aug 17, 2021 14 min read

Can Compassion and Executive Presence Co-exist

Executive presence is something that is desired, yet it has an elusive and mysterious quality to it.

What Exactly is Executive Presence?

It has been variously described as:

Showing up as ready for your next promotion.

The missing link between MERIT and SUCCESS.

'It factor'- a heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the stakeholders they are in the presence of someone who's going places.

Executive presence is not just a measure of performance. You have reached a certain level, so competence and functional expertise are assumed. It is said to be a measure of image: whether you signal to others that you have what it takes', that you are leadership material.

Jack Welch, the well known earlier chairman and CEO of General Electric said Executive Presence was like a unique fingerprint- and included communicating confidently and clearly, and essential to advance your career.

From the definitions and descriptions above, It creates an impression, doesn't it, that Executive Presence is about 'ME' the ability to be in the center of the room without hogging all the attention; a general sense of poise, confidence, decisiveness and dignity; the ability to get results.

But in reality Executive Presence is moving beyond the Self: it is the ability to simultaneously pay attention to all 3 factors: INNER (managing own agenda, as well as self-awareness- as a myriad of emotions do come up in interactions- anxiety, irritation, along with curiosity, courage and respect), OTHER (the reactions and emotions of the person/s you are with), and OUTER (the larger picture, the agenda).

Paying Attention to the INNER with Compassion

One of the spaces where Executive Presence is very much needed is when entering ZOUD (Zone of Uncomfortable Discussion).

'It is an Uncomfortable Discussion' because there are likely to be emotions such as disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety accompanying you.

If they simmer somewhere inside, unacknowledged, they have the power to either derail the conversation, or cause the key issue to be side-stepped, or be so caught up with own needs that you are unable to pay attention to the other.

It is helpful to name the emotions, know they are legitimate, and welcome them. It enables you to click through to learn what lies inside, rather than resisting them.

You fully feel the pain so that you can heal. You open your heart to it, accept it without wallowing in the emotions. Listening to your emotions will help you to make the necessary changes, instead of getting angry with yourself and not thriving.

And this requires first of all, to be compassionate with yourself. As John Steinbeck American author and the 1962 Nobel Prize winner in Literature said: "If we could learn to like ourselves, even a little, maybe our cruelties and angers might melt away."

Being Compassionate with Other

Here are 3 suggestions in dealing with ZOUD :

  1. Make it about 'YOU and me' instead of 'MY thoughts and feelings'.

Instead of saying 'I have some challenges at work, which I want to discuss with you'; say: 'I realize I'm missing some dots, can we spend some time talking about the big picture, so that I can support you better in the way we work together'.

  1. Keep sight of the big picture: it will help you to give in to smaller less important issues. Sometimes we get so caught up with 'drawing boundaries' OR 'stating our needs' that we forget to bring flexibility with lower priority items.
  2. Challenge yourself to become a ninja of 'Dealing with angry resistance through calm persistence'.

Here is an example of how a CEO was able to bring about a change in his manager by using compassion.

The CEO was getting impatient with one of his managers (lets call him Sanjay). Sanjay was leading the meeting, was not keeping track of time, kept dwelling into micro-details, and going on tangents. And this was also the way he tackled his job. The CEO had given exasperated feedback to Sanjay about this before; somehow it just didn't sink in.

Then the CEO changed track. With a burst of inspiration he let go of irritation, and bringing compassion, he said: 'Sanjay, I know you are keeping an eye on time vis-à-vis the agenda; and tracking of the big picture. And you are focusing on the frogs to eat vs the easier jobs you enjoy and are comfortable with.'

Something clicked—an inner programming between the two changed; and Sanjay's eyes sparkled. The meeting took a different tone. Sanjay was actually able to shift his behaviour, move on to the bigger picture and keep a sharper track of time.

Being 'present' helps you find flexibility in your style. And to acknowledge when an emotion (like anger or impatience) is becoming dysfunctional. Self-awareness and compassion provides flexibility from your rigid stances; which we tend to take up in times of stress.

Why should I sugarcoat if I see nothing admirable?' is a common question. American psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin answers it with, 'Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.' It is our arrogance and rigidity that makes us assume that there is no ability in another individual.

This helps us to move from 'The Love of Power' to the 'Power of Love'

The Importance of Centering Ourselves

How to access our compassion and connectedness with the other when our thoughts and energies are scattered ? We feel impatience when there is a conflict, anxious when we are in a dilemma 'Should I speak or not'; we are frazzled with mind chatter which shatter our sense of inner focus and attention.

What we need to do is to center ourselves.

If you were asked to locate 'self' in your body, where would you do it? Do you know that the physical center (of gravity) of our body in a standing posture, is typically about 10 cm lower than the navel, near the top of the hip bones.

Centering ourselves can also mean finding the embodied center.

In Japan, the center is 'seika-no-itten', the one point, the still point, the intersection of mind and body.

Being centered means:

-Being present to the self: living here, living now, a point-to-point sensory contact with reality;

-Efficient use of human energy;

-Taking action from a place of calm;

-Being self-reliant: Self-sufficiency and independence grows.

It means developing Balance, Resilience, Insight, Empathy.

'Centered Boss' vs Boss-Centered'

I was speaking to a colleague whom I had met only a few times; and about 25 minutes into the conversation, I looked discreetly at my watch.

We had not planned a closing time to our meeting, though I had mentally set it at half-hour.

He immediately said: 'Oh, you have to go?'

He had followed my eye movement to look at my watch- that too over a video call!

You have met these people, who I call the 'Centered Boss', who are closely tuned into the other.

Eg, they take one look at you, and say:

'You look tired today. Go home early and get rest'.

Or 'I know you are going through a tough time, its not easy, but its important we finish XY by tomorrow'.

The opposite is 'Boss Centered' Individual who are so task focused, that the human-connection gets lost.

The focus of the latter becomes 'my agenda', and the anxiety to achieve it is so strong that it hijacks the capacity to see the other. One outcome is pushiness; erasing the needs of others, resistance, aggressiveness, imposing the self on others.

But the 'Centered Boss' simultaneously keeps track of : Inner (own feelings, needs, expectations), Other (others' body language, expressions) and Outer (the agenda).

Compassion at the Time of the Pandemic

In conclusion, how are these ideas applicable to the current crisis of the pandemic, and the accompanying stress and ambiguity?

The Pandemic has been a time of self-reflection for many of us, and has highlighted how we interact with each other, what our priorities are, and how we communicate with our team during a crisis.

It has raised the important question: How do you reassure your team that you are there for them, connect with compassion, and yet expect performance? Can you do both?

As leaders search for answers as to how to be empathetic, authentic and still conduct business, we can pay attention to the three areas mentioned in this article:

1. Inner: What is happening inside us? If we don't acknowledge the huge anxiety inside, it is likely to 'escape' in the form of freeze, flight or fight reactions. Some leaders believe we have to put on a brave front of 'positivity' and 'confidence'.

The more we know ourselves, the more we can regulate our responses, and choose that we present that of an authentic,- leader who doesn't know the answers, but who has the strength and wisdom to work out things together.

2. Other: To be in tune with the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of my team members.

3. Outer: What are the systems and structures we as an organization are putting in place to support and take care of our employees.

Photo by Kevin Sloan


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