A Rockin' Example of How to Develop Leadership Presence

I once heard that everyone has the power to brighten a room; some do it when they enter and others do it when they leave! During a Strategic Leadership Coaching session recently, I challenged the gentleman I was working with to define the biggest change he had made in how he worked with his team since we had started the process. He responded, “Now I value the whole person, not just their potential to perform a task. I look for ways I can help them reach their individual potential and ways I can speak up on their behalf.” He then admitted that since he made this change, he’s seen a significant increase in how his team has bought into him.

Him sharing that story gave me an opportunity to point out, yet again, the difference between leading and managing a team. Both get results, and both are necessary, but combining the two can produce an exponential return. All said, what he explained ties directly to how we can establish a thing called leadership presence.

Think back to that Bret Michaels fellow I’ve mentioned a few times leading up to this point. Whether you’re into that style of music or not really doesn’t matter. Truth be told, his band doesn’t come close to being in my top 10 favorites, maybe not even my top 20. But his stage presence during their live shows definitely ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen!

When Cindy and I saw this 59 year old rock & roller run out on stage recently, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Let’s face it, he’s not living paycheck to paycheck with a networth that’s estimated as between $16 & $20 million. He’s had an incredible career and he’s had his share of health issues. It’s even rumored that his golden locks are actually a wig underneath that signature bandana! But to say he has good stage presence would be borderline insulting; his stage presence was world-class!

From the time he hit the stage, he was interacting with the crowd. While there were tens of thousands of people in attendance, I believe everyone felt a connection with him. He reminisced about the history he and the band shared with the fans and he showed genuine appreciation for the support they had received over the years. The presence he had with the crowd during the hour or so he was on stage dwarfed each of the other bands that played, even the one that played a much better set musically. It didn’t come as a surprise either! We had seen him perform twice before. He carried the show on his back when saw him in the late 90s; his lead guitar play had apparently broken out of rehab to flop around on stage. And even while incredibly hoarse, he did everything in his power to provide a great experience for the crowd in 2017. 

Based on a story I heard recently though, he’s been doing that same thing since he got his start - and that’s likely a big part of why people still pay to see him do it today! In the early days of what was called “glam metal,” he and his band were the poster children of the era and they had quite the following. Apparently Bret’s approach from the beginning was to be nice to every girl swooning over them, regardless of age or looks. He realized that connecting with them all meant more fans and bigger crowds. And anytime there were lots of girls in the crowd, there would also be lots of guys…

With that in mind, let’s move from the rock & roll work to what you and I deal with everyday, and apply the lessons we can pull from that to how we build leadership presence - but we’ll make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t get us in hot water with the folks in our HR departments! Every truly effective leader I’ve had the chance to study has been just as intentional about connecting with their team as Bret Michaels was about connecting with his audience. While the venue was different, the presence really wasn’t. With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the best examples I’ve seen of creating leadership presence.

Who Are Your VIPs?

Since Cindy and I had the chance to enjoy the 75% of the Stadium Tour we hung around for (we left during the rain delay because it was already past our bedtime and neither of us were all that bothered about seeing Motley Crue anyway), I’ve seen various pictures posted to social media from the VIP meet & greet sessions each band offered as an upsell with their ticket package. Interestingly enough, I’ve also seen folks commenting about how they took out a loan or maxed out their credit card to purchase those VIP packages… I’m no financial planner, but I'm pretty sure that’s not the best fiscal decision those folks have ever made! I thought the $75 per seat in the second row from the very top of the stadium was a bit pricey, but I’ve seen comments about the VIP packages being $1,700 per person. Just wow…

One final thing to consider about those VIP packages before we take a look at two of the best examples I’ve ever seen of creating a leadership presence; the VIP session with one of those bands consisted of each person having around 20 seconds to wave to the band from about ten feet in front of them before having a picture taken. Seriously… But the VIP sessions Bret Michaels did was just one more time for him to shine! Whether the other band had that much lingering fear of Covid or they were just plain jerks, Bret did not take the same approach. All the photos I’ve seen of the meet & greet sessions with him were up close and personal. Folks have also commented how genuine he seemed when they talked with him - yes, he actually talked with people who were closer to him than ten feet away! He’s clearly as intentional about his one on one presence as he is his stage presence!

So who are your VIPs? And which of those examples are a closer match to how you treat them?

Two of the best examples I’ve ever seen were from managers at the manufacturing facility I worked in for nearly 20 years. Both had moved to the area from other parts of the country and began their time with us in management roles. While they each had extensive experience in other types of manufacturing, neither had hands-on experience in what we did there - and hardly anyone on the shop floor knew anything about their prior experience, or cared…

Not long after starting there, they each began blocking a half or a full day each month or so to work in various departments within the facility. That experience gave them a much better understanding of the manufacturing process, but it also helped them recognize when someone was trying to get one over on them. From a management perspective, it seemed like they were investing a lot of time into something they may never need to know in significant detail - and that’s likely why I never saw any other managers do it. From a leadership perspective though, that was some of the best time either of them ever invested!

Both of them understood that they’d only learn a small fraction of what was really involved in the jobs they were filling in on but they knew the connection they made with the people working beside them would help build their leadership presence faster than anything else they could have done. The time each of them spent at different machines was never because they didn’t have other things to do, it was an intentional effort to connect with team members and show that they valued them enough to understand their roles.

I can’t say I would have felt very VIP-ish when the people who charged me big bucks were standing on boxes ten feet behind me and only said HI before snapping a picture and pushing me through the cattle chute. And I also never felt like a VIP around a manager who had no understanding of who I was or what I did in their organization!

Considering that example, how are you handling your VIPs? And what can you do to build a stronger leadership presence with them? What I saw those managers do was certainly a good start but they backed all that with one specific thing that really solidified their connection with team members. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen some other managers do everything in their power to avoid doing that one thing…

The Entire Team Matters!

Once we’ve accepted a leadership role, there’s never a shortage of things demanding our time and attention. That’s just part of what we signed up for! That said, one thing we just can’t lose sight of, especially if we want to build the kind of leadership presence we’ve been looking at up until now, is just how important it is that we stay connected to the team we’re responsible for leading. Yes, that requires our time, which is already limited. And yes that requires our energy, which is often in short supply. But our team, the real VIPs, deserve that from us if we truly expect to earn their buy-in as we develop leadership presence.

One thing we cannot do, or even give the perception that we’re doing, is put our team members last - even the ones we’re not necessarily best buddies with. To establish authentic leadership and genuine influence, we need to be incredibly intentional about showing that we value every individual on our teams. That’s no simple task! There will always be some team members who have more in common with us than others. And there will inevitably be some folks outside our organizations who we’ve developed great relationships with that want to get time with. But building leadership presence with our entire team will mean that we often need to go out of our way to be available - to whomever needs us.

Think of that scenario I referenced before where people paid big bucks for the meet & greet session to be herded through for a quick photo while the band stood on wooden boxes ten feet behind them… Since seeing posts about that, I’ve also seen a backstage photo of the drummer hugging John Travolta (whose head was shaved?). I won’t even touch the weirdness of that photo, but it removes any legitimacy of that ten foot boundary being related to Covid concerns; it tells me they just weren’t interested in being too close to the minions…

Let’s take that back to where we live and breathe. I remember how annoying it was to see a particular shop floor employee frequently camped out in a management team member’s office. They had some common interests outside of work so those seemed to carry over into the workplace on a routine basis. By itself, it wasn’t a huge deal… The challenge was that this shop floor employee had a longstanding reputation for being a loafer, and he was an arrogant ass on top of that. Before you say, “Gee, Wes, tell us how you really feel,” know that I just shared a VERY toned down version of how little I ever respected that particular fellow…

Now couple him being a less than ambitious (or productive) team member with the fact that this particular manager often didn’t make time for issues or concerns other employees (significantly harder working ones at that) tried bringing to his attention… I’ll let you guess how much leadership presence he built amongst his team!

Here’s the thing, that manager wasn’t necessarily a bad guy; he just wasn’t being an effective leader. All said, he was a fairly good manager - but that’s just not the same thing! To combine effective management with effective leadership, we need to be as good at working with our teams as we are with overseeing the technical processes they’re involved in. That’s no small order; it will require a lot of our time and attention, and we’ll rarely be able to make it all happen without being very intentional about letting all of our team members know we’re available when they need us - so that’s where we’ll pick up next time!