Leadership Presence and Relational Knowing

Whether we use the term executive presence, leadership presence, or some other reference to our “on-stage” appearance in an organizational setting, what is seen by others is both a cause and an effect, a fact and a phenomenon, and it has both personal and social meaning. The interpretations of such on-stage performance, of course, play out differently in the minds of perceiving individuals, who are themselves both actors and audience members for one another.

But that’s not usually where our thinking begins when talk of executive presence arises. Thought and discussion of executive presence will usually start in the familiar normative context of our mental models and daily experience. Let me explain.

In Western society there is a bias for attributing leadership, especially executive leadership, to the individual. So, our natural mental picture of on-stage leadership performance evokes a one-to-many scene: an executive self on stage in role, and multiple other subordinate selves in role who populate the audience. Analyzing and challenging this way of framing the social-organizational context was the purpose of Erving Goffman’s classic Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959).

Stilted? Perhaps. But I believe the one-to-many prototype of leadership and its downward and outward expression of intentions and aims is where much, if not most, ideation on the topic of leadership begins. And to the extent such mental fixity in the way we regard leadership prevails, it constrains our ability to promote emergent leadership at all levels of the organization. Why? Because this conception locks us into formal rather than dynamic structures, and it privileges individual over relational sources of cause.   

Replacing Cognitive Fixity with Relational Knowing

The truth, according to Goffman, is that there are many stages and actors in an organization. Associated with each stage is a backstage, where the on-stage performative imperatives yield to one’s off-stage role and action. Stages and audiences differ in size, and their performances vary in duration. But in any case, differences and discrepancies between one’s on-stage and off-stage presentation of self can determine one’s impact and efficacy in role, both on and off of the stage.

For most of us, it is the off-stage presentation of self that represents our most spontaneous, unguarded expression of identity. In the familiar relationships and practiced patterns of working with one another there is a safety that frees us to reveal our quirks, to react and even over-react, knowing that others can place the full range of our behavior in a context that proportionalizes it and explains our intentions. It is these relational norms and expectations to which we adapt in our presentation of self on or off-stage.

Getting to know our immediate audience in everyday work and life occurs naturally for most of us. We achieve this knowing in the course of our relating to one another, through trial and error, in and across specific situations. We implicitly acquire an understanding of our audience, individuals and groups, in this way. Good actors are able to use this understanding to empathize, adapt their tone and language, all in the service of the purpose at hand.

The more nimble we become in navigating this process of implicit relational knowing, the more potential we have for translating our implicit relational knowledge into intentional and explicit relational process. And it’s this adaptive translation work that enables us to “set the stage” and play our role in a way that makes the transition of off-stage relationships to on-stage engagement rather seamless. This nimbleness may come more easily to some than others, but it is something we can all successfully cultivate.

Recognizing the importance of this “implicit relational knowing,” and the benefits of being able to translate it into explicit engagement when we are on stage, has prompted us to look for the psycho-social antecedents of this capacity. Being able to assess this potential in early-career professionals helps us to more reliably identify their potential to lead, whether in formal positions of leadership or in emergent acts of aligned leadership at all levels of the organization.

Concluding Thoughts

George Herbert Mead long ago proposed that identity and self-development are the product of social interaction, which begins early in life. A picture of who we are is reflected in the preverbal “conversation of gestures” that arises between infant and caregiver. When this relationship or “holding environment”[i] is sufficiently reliable, responsive, and encouraging, children are likely to form a sense of secure attachment[ii] that allows them to venture out, to explore and learn, with the assurance that they have support in times of adversity.

This felt sense of security (or its absence) is internalized, and it continues to influence our social and interpersonal style into adulthood in ways that have been shown to predict effectiveness in leadership and in forming bonds with direct reports and collaborators. As leaders mature, this same prosocial tendency is manifest in qualities of inclusiveness and generative concern for others, which inclines leaders to encourage the development of next-generation leaders.

For more on our approach to early-career leader development, please visit our site and view our whitepapers. Also, check out our upcoming webinar Early-Career Leader Development.

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As always, I welcome your questions.



[i] See Donald Winnicott for the classic articulation of “good-enough care” and “holding,” and see Martha Nussbaum for a contemporary application in her capability approach to human development (Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Belknap Press, 2011), which asserts that we must acknowledge both our independent potentials for self-direction and agency as well as our vulnerabilities and needs for support in order to properly address public policy. For a Winnicott reference:  http://gestaltnyc.org/uploads/WINNICOTT_-_Reading_Development-Studies-in-the-Theory-of-Emotional-Development-1965.pdf.

[ii] See David Wallin (Attachment in Psychotherapy, Guilford Press, 2007) in particular for a wonderful clinical study of attachment theory and its application in adaptive adult development; and see Davidovitz et al (2007) for its application in business, “Leaders as attachment figures: Leaders' attachment orientations predict leadership-related mental representations and followers' performance and mental health.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(4), 632-650.