It Helps To Have Presence

There are many different ways to be a leader in your library or on your campus, and you can lead from any position in the library. Being willing to step up and take responsibility as the idea champion for a project is one way to establish yourself as a library leader. Spotting new trends, connecting the dots and putting it all together to develop an innovative service is another way to express leadership. Seeing things on your campus that need to be accomplished and taking the first step toward getting things done will help establish the library as a campus leader. But no matter what you do or how you do it, it helps to establish presence. But what does it mean to have presence, and how would you go about developing it? Do some people have a natural presence or is it a quality you can learn and acquire?

So how do you know when you’ve achieved this intangible thing we call presence? Chances are you may not know the answer to this question until you encounter your crucible. In the book Crucibles of Leadership, Robert J. Thomas profiles many leaders who were tested by way of experiencing a personal crucible. A crucible is the vessel in which alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. Thomas writes:

We can think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which a person extracts his or her gold: a new or altered sense of identity…Crucibles are not life stages…like moving from adolescence to adulthood…Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.

There are dozens of state, regional and national library leadership programs, and they cover many issues that emerging and experienced leaders must know. But I suspect that few offer authentic practice for developing a presence. In Thomas’ book most leaders describe a crisis or catastrophic experience that defined their crucible. Such events cannot easily be manufactured in a seminar setting. Often it is a test of fire that one must prepare for and emerge from successfully. Then you will know you have experienced your crucible.

But a simple test of presence for any leader, is being called upon to speak spontaneously about your library or a library-related issue, such as scholarly communications. For example, at a campus meeting the college president calls upon you, as the representative of the library, to share your vision for a 21st century library, to share your perspective on a recent news item about the changing academic library, or to explain how the library best serves as the heart of campus. Great leaders can speak extemporaneously with great presence so that they inspire others – or at least reassure their colleagues that someone has a command of the situation. How do you prepare for that? Developing presence is a challenge.

According to John Baldoni, presence is not the same as having charisma. In a recent post at his blog he writes:

I define leadership presence as earned authority. You may have a title, but you need to earn the respect and trust of your coworkers. Presence is rooted in fundamental competence, and for anyone who aspires to lead, presence is essential. Developing this is a long process that goes far beyond speaking in public. Some people confuse presence with charisma, but the two are not the same. The former is developed over time; the latter is what you are born with and is a matter of looks, charm, personality, and appeal.

But what guidance does Baldoni provide for those who want to develop and build their leadership presence, particularly when put on the spot to speak publicly – a formidable crucible for many:

Remain calm. Why? Because you are in control! Your stomach may be churning and your palms may be sweaty, but you must realize the microphone is in your hands. This is a little secret that I share with people I coach: people have to listen to you. Whether you croon or wax eloquent, the audience is at your mercy. You are the master of your destiny, or at least the next five minutes. When you keep that thought in mind, you will realize that yes, you can do this. You can speak in front of an audience and you will be okay.

Simple – right? If you seek to establish your presence, a good place to start may be improving your ability to speak like a leader. There are plenty of resources to help with that, such as blogs or organizations like Toastmasters. But even taking time for authentic practice is beneficial; try delivering a short talk on a topic well known to you but do it in front of a mirror. Of course it helps to be well versed on the issues of the day, and to spend time thinking about and crafting your personal vision so that you can quickly articulate it when called upon to do so. Two ideas that may help: (1) be prepared to deliver sound bites and (2) stay on your message.

I learned the first at a prior position when we were required to undergo media training. What is media training? That’s learning how to show grace under pressure when a reporter sticks a microphone in your face and asks for a response to a challenging question (think 60 Minutes confrontations). That rarely happens to a library leader during a crisis, but you never know when a journalist may call you and ask for an on-the-spot opinion about an issue. You need to be ready and long, drawn out explanations won’t cut it. You need to deliver the goods in a concise and coherent way. Sound bite has an unpleasant and superficial tone, but if you want to be quoted correctly and come off sounding like you know your business, it does work. So think in advance and prepare sound bites that you can deliver under pressure and on demand.

The second comes from a workshop I attended at which the main speaker was the author of a book about developing communication skills for leaders. This technique comes straight out of politics, and it’s used to answer difficult questions for which you are not quite prepared. How well this works for you depends, again, on advance preparation. Staying on message means having a consistent message you want to communicate no matter what the question is. If your goal is to consistently communicate the contribution the library makes to student success or faculty research, then put together a short and easy to remember message that you can recite on demand – and ad lib to as needed. If an administrator or faculty member asks you a tough question about why we still need libraries or what you thought about the Chronicle article on lousy online catalogs, you can bob and weave your way past the first 10 or 15 seconds of response, have your transitional phrasing ready and then get on message. Here’s an example:

I did read that article and I have to agree that academic libraries can do a better job of [INSERT ISSUE/TOPIC] and in our professional association conversations we debate this issue frequently [UP TO THIS POINT YOU'VE REALLY SAID NOTHING OF GREAT SUBSTANCE - NOW GET TO YOUR MESSAGE] but what’s really important is that our library stays focused on doing everything it can to help our students achieve academic success [AT THIS POINT YOU ARE OVER ANY INITIAL NERVOUSNESS ABOUT HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION - NOW YOU CRUISE TO THE FINISH LINE] and that’s why we are seriously examining a number of new technology solutions that address the problem discussed in that article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me about this challenge our library faces.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Of course it’s easy to write this stuff out when you have plenty of time to think about it – which is where you should probably start. Then when you get asked these questions in committee meetings and at the faculty senate where you’ll have little time to think about it – you’ll be ready to step up and show you’ve got presence.

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