Steve Jessmore, The Sun Times
Presidential candidate Ron Paul is a fascinating study in leadership. In debates, he is angular, fumbling, scattered and interpersonally clumsy. And yet despite his unpolished platform skills, he speaks directly to voter need out of deep and genuine commitment. In many ways, he passes the real test of leadership — to build trust. Even if you’re not a libertarian, and even if you don’t subscribe to some of his extreme positions, you sense that he is guided by a genuine sense of stewardship. He is courageous. Paul helps us understand that leadership presence, which he does not possess in great abundance, is not the same thing as leadership credibility.
If you watch too many presidential debates, you might get the impression from the other candidates that leadership is mostly about the ability to communicate compelling policy arguments, along with the care and feeding of your personal brand. That’s only part of it.
The concept of leadership presence, as people call it, can be confusing. It refers to one's ability to command attention when you walk into a room. It has a lot to do with charisma, and so for things like presidential debates, it matters. But with the possible exception of running for president, this thing we call leadership presence is grossly overrated.
In organizational life, we develop a level of shared intimacy that comes from working together. Have you noticed that there’s a crucial distinction in how credibility is established inside an organization? With outside audiences, as in a presidential debate, credibility is primarily established through formal presentation. It’s largely earned on the quality of delivery and debating skills. Not true with employees. You can’t get a credibility score once you’ve made your close and found your chair. It comes later, and it will be measured in a different way. Increased understanding and stirred emotions may create hopeful signs, but there’s a tougher standard for building credibility with your colleagues at work. You have to be more like Ron Paul. More real and more genuine.
A leader can do much to improve presence and communication skills. The poor communicator can become good and the good communicator can become better. All of our experience confirms that you can effectively close skill gaps. This doesn’t mean a leader with underdeveloped powers of expression will acquire Churchillian eloquence. But leaders can achieve greater impact by improving the use of voice, eyes and body — what we call paralinguistics and kinesics — to connect with and engage listeners. You can also learn how to craft a clean, tight message. But what if after all of this you’re still not credible?
There is another kind of failure. It’s one that doesn’t trace back to skills. Nor is it a function of less teachable assets such as charisma or presence. Rather than lacking the right skills, you might lack the right motivation. If the motivation isn’t right, employees will tend to see communication skills as costume jewelry.
We’re taught to overemphasize the skills side of the equation. As a result, we sometimes mistake a motivation problem for one of ability; we label as a skill barrier what is in fact a deficiency that resides in a deeper place. In other words, you have to care. Unlike the message of Oscar Wilde’s satirical play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” it really is important to be earnest.
When you communicate with others, reach out to greet them at their cognitive and emotional starting points. This means that you have done your homework to understand their concerns. If you take this approach, your reach and effect are magnified because you have anticipated and can therefore speak more directly to the questions and challenges your employees would instinctively raise. The benefit of this step is that it helps you achieve a purity of message that you often would not otherwise because you are unobstructed in purpose.
You simply can’t skill-build over a character problem. Newt Gingrich is a case in point. He is highly intelligent and can debate most any policy issue with great alacrity. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the wrong corrective action for the root cause. Technique and stylistics won’t get it done. Presence does not equal credibility.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail:email@example.com
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