Pursue Presence – Forget Charisma


This was originally published on March 27, 2011


If you’ve been with me the past few weeks, you know I’ve been writing about the notion of “presence.” I’ve been suggesting that we can understand this unusual concept, and that as “everyday leaders” we can not only understand it, but practice and develop it. Often people think that presence and charisma are the same thing.  Not true.  Today I offer a story of how different they are. And I believe this story offers insight into how you can practice presence.

My wife was sitting on the dais at a big political dinner, next to a very powerful person who shall remain nameless. He was widely spoken of for his persuasiveness and charisma, and indeed on this evening folks said he gave a very compelling speech. I was home with the kids, so when Jennifer came home I asked her, “How did it go, what was he like?”

Jennifer who is generally generous with her praise and her forgiveness said, “Honestly? He was really disappointing.” Although Michigan was very important to this fellow, he had asked her nothing about the state, nothing about its challenges, nor its key players, let alone about how things were going for her. He talked about himself and his campaign. And as she recounted the dinner, she told me it wasn’t just what he said and didn’t say, but that he exuded a great disinterest about the whole matter. Then he stood up and gave a pretty good speech, and received an excellent reception from the crowd.

Some people give off something, which we often speak of as charisma. I imagine at some point the scientists will be able to measure what’s given off; they’ll find some type of energy, something about eye focus and movement. Perhaps they’ll measure tiny facial gestures the way the Golf Channel experts break a golf swing down into super, super slow motion. Charisma is about something that’s given off.

Presence, by contrast is about the way you take things in. It sounds nearly redundant, but presence is about truly being there. Not being at yesterday’s meeting, tomorrow’s vacation, the last time you saw this person, your worries about one of your children, or just being lost in your own head. It’s about being present.

When I was a 19 year old, very confused sophomore at Yale, I went to see a priest named Father Henri Nouwen to ask if he would act as a spiritual guide or counselor.  He listened in a fashion I had never experienced before, nor have I since. Only with metaphorical language – like a bright light dispelling darkness – or with deeply spiritual language – like his offering an openness to the very love of God – could I begin, and only begin, to give a sense of what I believe was his complete presence that day. For about 80 minutes or so, I felt like the world stopped.

I think I’ve opened a topic I can’t possibly tie in a neat bow today. But when I write “lead with your best self,” I’m surely not talking about that first gentleman, who just wasn’t there. I’m inviting myself and you to be present to that which is truly extraordinary in other people. Sometimes that might be the kind of hurt I was bearing that day – the quiet pain of your coworkers, or children or aging parents.  Or maybe you might be present to an awesome idea that no one else has listened to. Maybe you’ll allow someone to express a growing frustration, that keeps them from being able to produce their best. Or maybe you’ll make it safe for a young person who’s striving to prove themselves, and unsure if they’ve got what it takes, to get a load off their chest and to receive some honest feedback.  Who will be present to them today?

I don’t think this kind of presence can be faked. I do think it can be practiced. And I’m certain that it both comes out of, and results in, a person’s

Leading with their best self,


P.S. Fr. Nouwen was not only exceptional in his one-on-one presence. He was a remarkably passionate preacher and a gentle, light-bearing spiritual writer.  Those in the Christian tradition, with an interest in deepening their life of prayer and their practice of compassion will find amazing stuff from him.  He was Dutch, taught at the divinity schools at Yale and Harvard, then spent much of his life at the L’Arche community, humbly serving people with extreme disabilities.  My favorite of his works is The Wounded Healer, but he speaks to different people in different ways.

The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society