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The Power of Deliberate Leader Presence

 

 

 
 
   
   
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(iCredit: istockphoto.com/peshkov)

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I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory—that any pessimism and discouragement I might ever feel would be reserved for my pillow. To translate this conviction into tangible results, I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back and a definite interest in his problems.1

—General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Like a window to our soul, leader presence is the external display of a leader’s internal attributes, like character, humility, empathy, discipline, and intellect. “Presence represents who leaders are and what they stand for.”2 Effective leader presence is essential to demonstrating how a leader expects subordinates to carry themselves. Yet, subordinates are sure to sense when a leader attempts to portray themselves as something they are not.3

Effective leader presence is rooted in the following attributes: military and professional bearing, fitness, confidence, and resilience.4 These attributes are the foundation for how others perceive a leader’s actions, words, demeanor, and appearance.5 Developing an effective leader presence is not a destination to be reached, but rather a lifelong journey of continually assessing our internal attributes—who we are—and comparing it with the attributes we display externally. Self-awareness, humility,6 and selflessness are vital for lifelong improvement in all attributes, including leader presence. By exploring examples of military and professional bearing, fitness, confidence, and resilience, we can all improve our ability to demonstrate leader presence.

Military and Professional Bearing

Military bearing has been at the foundation of leader presence in the Army since before its establishment in 1775. George Washington’s military bearing made him the obvious choice to command the Continental Army. As Joseph Ellis notes in His Excellency, “[i]n fact . . . more delegates could agree that Washington should lead the American army than that there should be an American army at all.”7 Benjamin Rush said General Washington “had so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.”8 Washington’s physicality, humility, reserve, and customary silence, together with his military experience (he was the only delegate to attend in uniform), resulted in his unanimous selection.

In addition to his natural gifts, General Washington spent much of his life developing and improving his presence through careful study of subjects ranging from his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation,9 agriculture, and of course numerous military texts. But most importantly, he subjected himself to “rigorously realistic assessments during [] intense moment[s] of self-evaluation in which he was mercilessly honest.”10 General Washington’s presence, in particular his military and professional bearing, lay at the foundation in him becoming the indispensable man of the American Revolution.

Today, military and professional bearing is expected of all Army members and is necessary to build credibility. It reinforces military structure and supports good order and discipline. Military and professional bearing is an important part of demonstrating character, competence, and commitment to the Army.11 It is also indispensable for a leader to set the example and uphold standards, by projecting a professional image of authority.

Fitness

Fit and healthy leaders are a clear source of motivation when they challenge subordinates to follow their example.12 They are also in a better position to meet the physical demands of leadership. While physical fitness and readiness are crucial for success in battle, all members of the Army team must be ready in all environments.13

Long before taking command of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, Brigadier General Susan Escallier demonstrated the important role fitness plays in leader presence. In 1998, then-Captain (CPT) Escallier was serving as the first female trial counsel for the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division. While walking through a barracks on her way to teach a class to a company of paratroopers, CPT Escallier smelled a pungent odor. She suspected the odor may have been marijuana, so she promptly investigated. Soon, she was eye-to-eye with a paratrooper who was in the act of violating Article 112a, Uniform Code of Military Justice.14 Captain Escallier ordered the Soldier to stop, but he immediately ran. An exceptionally fit, accomplished distance runner, CPT Escallier pursued the paratrooper. After an extensive chase across Fort Bragg, the paratrooper eventually recognized that he could not shake CPT Escallier, so he raised his hands and surrendered to her. While the company was initially upset that CPT Escallier was late for the training, her credibility and presence was unrivaled once they learned she ran down a fleeing paratrooper to enforce good order and discipline.

Confidence and Resilience

The final attributes associated with leader presence are confidence and resilience.15 The confidence of a leader can be contagious when accompanied by professional competence tempered with humility, as well as an appropriate sense of human limitations. The composure and outward calm of a confident leader reduces anxiety within a unit and promotes optimism. Just as important, resilience allows leaders and their organizations to endure and overcome adversity.16 As leaders and their teams successfully endure hardship, they build confidence and resilience, becoming a cohesive team.

Theodore Roosevelt is an inspiring example of resilience and confidence. As a young politician in the New York State legislature in Albany, Roosevelt learned of the birth of his first child, Alice. He rushed home to learn that his wife and mother were both dying. The two most important women in his life both died on 14 February 1884, causing him to write in his journal: “The light has gone out of my life.”17 Roosevelt tried to deal with his grief by burying himself in his work. “It is a grim and evil fate, but I have never believed it did any good to flinch or yield for any blow, nor does it lighten the blow to cease from working.”18 Eventually, Roosevelt went cattle ranching in the North Dakota Badlands where he would transform himself from a New York city slicker, in relatively poor health, into a rugged cowboy, gaining thirty pounds of muscle. As remarkable as his physical transformation, his ability to overcome his depression is more noteworthy. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” described his approach to building resiliency.19 His transformation into a supremely confident, resilient leader clearly demonstrated what Roosevelt stood for as he became a fearless reformer, Rough Rider, and future U.S. President.

These examples unmistakably demonstrate how military and professional bearing, fitness, confidence, and resilience are essential aspects of effective leader presence.20 As we carefully assess and deliberately transform our presence as leaders, we can improve our ability to show effective leader presence consistent with the attributes that embody what we stand for. TAL

 


COL Dunlap is currently assigned as the Dean of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS) in Charlottesville, VA.



Notes

1. Fred Greenstein, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from Roosevelt to Clinton 49 (2000).

2. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession para. 3-1 (25 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22].

3. Id. para. 3-1.

4. Id.

5. See id. para. 3-3.

6. Subordinates want their leaders to be successful and do not expect perfection. When a leader is willing to risk embarrassment to learn something new or shares in a hardship, the subordinate’s respect for the leader will only increase. See id. para. 3-1.

7. Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington 69 (2004).

8. Id.

9. George Washington, Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation: A Book of Etiquette 1 (1971).

10. Ellis, supra note 7, at 69.

11. See ADP 6-22, supra note 2, para. 3-3.

12. See id. para. 3-2.

13. See id.

14. UCMJ art. 112a (2018).

15. See ADP 6-22, supra note 2, paras. 3-2, 3-3.

16. See id. para. 3-2.

17. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times 124 (2018).

18. Id. at 125.

19. Id. at 128.

20. See ADP 6-22, supra note 2, para. 3-1.