Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for August, 2012

Present Company

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How You Can Build Your Leadership Presence


The speech didn’t start off well. We were in a Midwestern city at a trade group conference of equipment dealers, where I was working with an executive of a leading manufacturer who had just taken charge of his company’s dealer channel. Here he was, waiting to address the group – some of whom were not entirely satisfied with their relationship with the manufacturer – and the organizers of the event were fifteen minutes late getting started because they couldn’t figure out how to get the PowerPoint from their laptop to the screens. So, when the executive finally got the chance to start talking, the feeling in the room wasn’t great.

Then about ten minutes into his 45-minute presentation, a dialog box appears in the screen behind him, warning that if the laptop weren’t plugged in it would shortly lose power. About a minute later, the screens went black.

So here’s this executive – in a critical leadership moment, a big chance to connect with his dealers and move their relationship forward – and now he has no support. Maybe he remembers what his next slide is and what the bullets are, and maybe he doesn’t. You couldn’t have blamed him if he’d frozen, or suggested they just move on to the Q&A. He’s only human, after all.

But instead, he just shrugged and smiled a “What’re you going to do?” smile and said, “Hey, I didn’t need those slides anyway, let me tell you what I think is most important.”

He talked about what he wanted the dealers to know. What he believed in and what he stood for. He told them how he understood the problems and what steps had already been taken to solve them. He smiled and stayed cool. And when, five minutes later, the organizers found a plug for the laptop and got him up and running again, he just took the pickle and advanced through his slides to the next thing he wanted to talk about. It was one of the greatest moments of grace under fire that I’ve ever seen and he finished his talk with the full respect of everyone in the audience, including the doubters.

How did he do it?

Two things were at play. One, he had profound expertise in his topic. Two, he had what I call “Leadership Presence,” a profound depth of personal strength and confidence that allowed him to be unflappable. He knew what he was talking about and he knew that he knew it. But he also had something a little deeper: a sense of presence that allowed him to rise to the occasion, an ability to shut of the voices of panic and confusion in his mind, to defuse the negative emotions that might hit many of us, a powerful acceptance of reality (you’re on stage with no slides, my friend) and the clarity of mind to know what to say or do next.

Some people will tell you that you have to be born with leadership presence, and certainly some people are. But it can be learned, too. And what I’ve found is that presentation coaching is one of the gateways to developing the skills you need to be a great leader.

Why? It’s more than the fact that being able to deliver your message clearly and compellingly is a critical leadership skill. It’s that the qualities – native or learned – which make a person a great speaker are many of the same qualities that can set them apart from their peers in any environment.

Leadership Presence is the ability to be authentic to the moment you’re in, whatever that moment is and whatever the moment demands; the ability to sense when it’s appropriate to listen and when it’s appropriate to speak and, when speaking, to have a sense of what’s appropriate to say; the social intelligence to “feel” people rather than think you know what they feel; and the clarity of mind to do the right thing.

Leadership presence answers the question of what is most important: what you do or who you are. Is it the results you deliver that matters most? Or is it who you are inside?

The answer is simple. What you do is driven by who you are. You beat your quota by 50%? Fantastic. Your actions that led to that success were driven by who you were being.

Take two young management trainees, Hope and Faith, who arrive at a company with similar backgrounds and similar advantages. Through their first 15 to 20 years with the company, each is a super-star, each making her numbers and delivering more than she’s asked for. And by the time they’re into their forties, they’re both regional vice-presidents and among a group of peers who will soon be competing for a spot at a division presidency or a C-suite position.

And that’s where the game really changes. Because while results are still going to count as Hope and Faith move forward – they’ll count as much as ever – everyone at that level is producing results. What everyone doesn’t have is Leadership Presence.

Take Faith, for instance. When it came to the company’s national meeting, she was given an important speaking role. Through the process of message and speech development, she was constantly late with her deliverables – unusual for her – and seemed diffident with those trying to help her. She had to endure sitting in a review meeting with the CEO and explaining that she’d been too busy producing results to get her presentation ready for the review.

When I finally got Faith onstage for her speech coaching, she was fretting about everything from the lighting to the position of the stage. She could barely read the teleprompter that all her peers were using. I took her aside and asked what was wrong. She started blaming the process but I stopped her.

“Look,” I said, “I hear you’re a scratch golfer. You know what, you’re approaching speaking the way I approach golf. I think about my grip, I fret about my stance, I worry about slicing and guess what? My ball always slices. You need to get out of your head and be here in the room. Stop thinking, connect with the audience and have fun.”

It didn’t work. And it turned out that – for all her success and her results over the year – she had reached a level where she just couldn’t summon up the presence – presence of mind, presence of body, presence of emotional maturity – to rise any further, at least not in that organization at that time. Six months later, she was on the street, looking for the next opportunity.

Hope, on the other hand, while she wasn’t a scratch golfer, had a knack for almost always getting other people’s jokes and for laughing at herself when she didn’t. She was taller than most of her male peers and sometimes seemed almost goofy, but she had a laser-like ability to listen and to let you know she got what you were saying. That made her a great communicator. And her presence on stage meant she was a great speaker without even trying. She was who she was, she was modest and forthcoming, and she focused on helping other succeed.

And just last week, the board appointed her to the position of CEO. The names have been changed and they were in different divisions of the organization, but their stories are true. Hope had Leadership Presence and Faith couldn’t get it.

But that doesn’t mean she still can’t, even at this stage of her career. Because presence can be learned and it can be practiced. Anybody can create it for themselves.

What started of for me as preparing executives and leaders to give a speech has grown into something significantly more lasting. Many of the skills that make a great presenter are also skills that make a great leader and I find my coaching, while presentation coaching is still the gateway, has moved to what I call Presence Coaching, asking leaders to look at the mistakes and miscues that take them out of the ebb and flow of a conversation – whether it’s with an audience of one or one thousand – and cause them to lose the attention and respect of the person or persons to whom they’re speaking.

Leadership Presence, on the simplest level, is how you come across to others. And, while it’s not, in itself, about how you dress, how you walk or talk, it can affect those things by creating a heightened sense of what’s appropriate in any moment. It’s not something you can get from Central Casting or from Georgio Armani. Slowing down your rate of speech or speeding up the way you walk won’t make the difference. Because unless you’re present inside yourself, the rest won’t matter.

What does matter is your ability to make yourself the right person at the right time. And that is something you CAN do something about.

If you’d ready to start, send me an e-mail.

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On Being Good Enough

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It was 10:30 in the morning when I walked out of my room in the convention hotel and headed down the extraordinarily long hallway.

It was unusual for me to sleep so late but I was feeling great from the extra rest and, as I said to a friend I ran into in the elevator, I had been going at such a pace that either my body or my subconscious mind was sending me a very powerful message.
As we walked into the lobby outside the Grand Ballroom, the coffee and the baked treats looked amazing. And then as I reached out my hand to greet another friend, the reason why 10:30 a.m. was important struck me like a gong.

I was supposed to be onstage, on the other side of those doors, delivering the keynote address to 5,000 people.

Leaving my bag where it stood, I started sprinting back to my room. I ran like Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie, fists pumping higher than my shoulders, knees pumping above my belt line. I was Usain Bolt. I was Seabiscuit. I felt the adrenalin rise in the base of my spine—the Kundalini!—and felt my torso angle back as my legs went faster than my body could follow. But where was I going? I had left no speech notes in my room. There were no notes because I had done absolutely nothing to prepare. Could I stand on the stage and fill 55 minutes with nothing but random thoughts?

That was when I started to scream.

And then I woke up, poured myself a cup of coffee and climbed the stairs to my garret to start writing. That ballroom was ten days and a thousand miles away. I had plenty of time.

So what was I so afraid of? I had just finished co-authoring a 530-page book on innovation, a three-year case study of one of the great business stories of the decade. It wasn’t like I didn’t have any material. And I’d been picked to speak based on my personal reputation with one of the executives, whom I had known for years, who had read the book and seen me speak elsewhere. Plus, I’d spent years working as a speech coach, helping people through just this kind of anxiety. If anybody could feel confident about getting on stage, it should be me.

And yet I had been avoiding putting my notes together because every time I thought about the upcoming speech, I had a sudden inspiration to do something, anything, else. To play Plants vs. Zombies or look at real estate bargains in Bulgaria suddenly seemed like reasonable activities in lieu of preparation.

Why? Because I feared I wasn’t good enough. Just like everyone else.

Fear of falling short is one of the great diseases of life, a disease so common that, if you feel you don’t suffer from it, I urge you to seek immediate professional help. According to no less a light than Abraham Maslow, “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”

It’s nice to know we’re not alone when we look in the mirror and judge ourselves harshly. Listen to the things people confide to hairdressers and plastic surgeons: I’m not pretty enough. I’m not thin enough or old enough or young enough. I don’t work hard enough. I don’t have enough free time. I don’t make enough money (well, actually, that one’s probably true for most of us). People obsess that their feet and noses are too big and their other parts are too small. So noses get done, faces get lifted and tummies get tucked. And let’s not even talk about the latest fast-growing trends for making people feel better about what’s inside their pants (if you think I’m kidding, just Google phalloplasty and vaginoplasty). It’s “I love me,” “I love me not,” from the cradle to the grave as we build a daisy chain of desire and disappointment.

I’m not saying that nothing positive comes out of it. I have calculated that 39.873% of the GDP comes from money spent by people trying to make themselves feel complete about who they are. For reference, that’s more than our outrageous Defense budget and about equal to the money spent trying to make you feel bad about the other political party (you know, the one that’s filled with idiots who make you feel smart compared to them). The truth is, our economy would collapse if we all woke up feeling fine about who we are. Much of the pharmaceutical industry and almost all of the cosmetic industry (I do think lotion is a good idea) depend on us to worry about things like how we smell or whether our teeth are white enough. Hollywood depends on being able to help you forget how completely insignificant you are compared to them and they do it – this is the hilarious part – through the vehicle of feel-good underdog movies. Charlie Chaplin, Jack Lemmon and Woody Allen built great and lucrative careers on the persistent performance of underdog roles. We love to see characters who are no smarter or prettier than us take on the world and come out on top, gripping and grinning to the credits. If they can do it, we can do it.

Well, actually, probably not.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean you can’t reach your goals; you can! Yes, you can get the promotion and rise gloriously to the top of the pyramid. Yes, you can slim down and buy the pumps that get you noticed by the billionaire with the kind eyes and marry him.

Yes, you can win the race, scale the heights and get the standing ovations. I believe in you, I want you to succeed and I know you can do it.

I’m just saying it won’t matter. You still won’t feel like you’re enough. If you doubt that, if you doubt that success and money won’t make you like yourself better, just pick up any tabloid in the supermarket or look at a picture of Donald Trump. If don’t like yourself the way you are; if you can’t feel how great it is to be you—right now, as you are—money isn’t going to change that. Not in the long run.

I love quotes by John Lennon. I’m aware that if John Lennon were here, he would tell me go away and leave him alone but his quotes are still nice. Here’s one I like: “Give yourself a break./Life wasn’t meant to be run./The race is over, you’ve won.” What he’s saying is, this is life, love it or leave it. If you can’t enjoy it while you have it, when will you? The short answer, for most human beings is: probably never.

The Maslow quote above is something I’ve arranged to pop up on my screen every morning, because selling ourselves short may be the most common cause of anxiety, frustration and failure. It’s the original sin, to think one is not worthy of love, even God’s. To think one is insufficient to the needs of the world. To think that, down deep, that one secret belief out of the thousands you have buried in the back of your mind—that basically, you suck—is the one belief that is actually the true one. It’s not, but me saying that probably doesn’t help.

Another thing that pops up on my screen is a picture of the novelist Elmore Leonard sitting at a typewriter. It’s there to remind me of the story that his first novel was rejected by 84 different publishers. I love that story, because it brings up the question, “What was he thinking?!!” As he packaged up the manuscript for the 85th time, what was going through his mind? This time will be different?

Imagine being turned down for dates by 84 people in a row. Having your dog bite your hand on 84 attempts to feed it. Trying to take Dead Man’s Corner with the pedal to the metal and totaling your Dad’s car 84 times. How crazy do you have to be not to realize that you and your book are not good enough? Did Mr. Leonard think that something different was going to happen the 85th time? Isn’t that the definition of insanity? And yet, something different did happen. Because he didn’t sell himself short. He kept sending the book out until, finally, somebody noticed how good it was. More than forty books later, it doesn’t sound crazy at all.

For all I know, Mr. Leonard woke up screaming at night, too, wondering what he would do with his book when the world ran out of publishers to reject him. But here’s a question: Suppose he’d had no rejections. What if the last publisher had happened to be first on the list? What if the book had sold the first time out? Would that make any difference to the value of the book? Would it make any difference to the value of the person? Published or unpublished, did it make any difference to whether or not he was good enough as a human being?

Kurt Vonnegut didn’t think so. Speaking on stage with his fellow author, Lee Stringer, he talked about the value of the act of just writing. “Anyone who has ever finished a book, whether the thing has been published or not, whether the thing is any good or not, is a colleague of ours.”

Think about that. Whether what you do with your life is any good or not, success or failure, win or lose, Kurt Vonnegut still thinks you’re good enough, just for having done it. And so do I and so does your dog. The fact that your cat may not agree simply says something about cats.

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