Pursue Presence – Forget Charisma

This was originally published on March 27, 2011


If you’ve been with me the past few weeks, you know I’ve been writing about the notion of “presence.” I’ve been suggesting that we can understand this unusual concept, and that as “everyday leaders” we can not only understand it, but practice and develop it. Often people think that presence and charisma are the same thing.  Not true.  Today I offer a story of how different they are. And I believe this story offers insight into how you can practice presence.

My wife was sitting on the dais at a big political dinner, next to a very powerful person who shall remain nameless. He was widely spoken of for his persuasiveness and charisma, and indeed on this evening folks said he gave a very compelling speech. I was home with the kids, so when Jennifer came home I asked her, “How did it go, what was he like?”

Jennifer who is generally generous with her praise and her forgiveness said, “Honestly? He was really disappointing.” Although Michigan was very important to this fellow, he had asked her nothing about the state, nothing about its challenges, nor its key players, let alone about how things were going for her. He talked about himself and his campaign. And as she recounted the dinner, she told me it wasn’t just what he said and didn’t say, but that he exuded a great disinterest about the whole matter. Then he stood up and gave a pretty good speech, and received an excellent reception from the crowd.

Some people give off something, which we often speak of as charisma. I imagine at some point the scientists will be able to measure what’s given off; they’ll find some type of energy, something about eye focus and movement. Perhaps they’ll measure tiny facial gestures the way the Golf Channel experts break a golf swing down into super, super slow motion. Charisma is about something that’s given off.

Presence, by contrast is about the way you take things in. It sounds nearly redundant, but presence is about truly being there. Not being at yesterday’s meeting, tomorrow’s vacation, the last time you saw this person, your worries about one of your children, or just being lost in your own head. It’s about being present.

When I was a 19 year old, very confused sophomore at Yale, I went to see a priest named Father Henri Nouwen to ask if he would act as a spiritual guide or counselor.  He listened in a fashion I had never experienced before, nor have I since. Only with metaphorical language – like a bright light dispelling darkness – or with deeply spiritual language – like his offering an openness to the very love of God – could I begin, and only begin, to give a sense of what I believe was his complete presence that day. For about 80 minutes or so, I felt like the world stopped.

I think I’ve opened a topic I can’t possibly tie in a neat bow today. But when I write “lead with your best self,” I’m surely not talking about that first gentleman, who just wasn’t there. I’m inviting myself and you to be present to that which is truly extraordinary in other people. Sometimes that might be the kind of hurt I was bearing that day – the quiet pain of your coworkers, or children or aging parents.  Or maybe you might be present to an awesome idea that no one else has listened to. Maybe you’ll allow someone to express a growing frustration, that keeps them from being able to produce their best. Or maybe you’ll make it safe for a young person who’s striving to prove themselves, and unsure if they’ve got what it takes, to get a load off their chest and to receive some honest feedback.  Who will be present to them today?

I don’t think this kind of presence can be faked. I do think it can be practiced. And I’m certain that it both comes out of, and results in, a person’s

Leading with their best self,


P.S. Fr. Nouwen was not only exceptional in his one-on-one presence. He was a remarkably passionate preacher and a gentle, light-bearing spiritual writer.  Those in the Christian tradition, with an interest in deepening their life of prayer and their practice of compassion will find amazing stuff from him.  He was Dutch, taught at the divinity schools at Yale and Harvard, then spent much of his life at the L’Arche community, humbly serving people with extreme disabilities.  My favorite of his works is The Wounded Healer, but he speaks to different people in different ways.

The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society

  • I do not want to write a four or five page essay here, but suggest that “presence,’ as you define it here, is very close to faith.

  • Dan – thanks for the fantastic post.
    Yes – in the Christian ministry “world” that I live and work in we call this the ministry of presence.
    The shout out for Henri Nouwen is fantastic. He is the author that has impacted my life more than any other.

  • Appreciate you spreading the word on Presence. A 2-year journey (and continuing) with horses, as guides and collaborators shifting the learning paradigm, confirms for me that when each of us, in every moment, is fully Present with another, we build powerful “momentary relationship” that augments: optimizing results, enriching our next encounter with people, Nature. Check out Theory U, and the magnificently challenging Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future (Senge et al), and Tolle’s The Power of Now.

  • Dan – You are on the money with the difference between presence and charisma. I call it the “aroma” of a person. Folks we like to be around have presence – they are interested in me, us, and all around them, and present themselves as least important where the folks they are with are most important. The charisma part is with those few people we may look at as “heroes” and not understand why, yet we would like to be around them. Once we are, we – like your wife – may be disappointed for they have no “presence”. Humility is like this. If I think I have it – I don’t. Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite writers. He I would like to meet!

  • Dan,

    A very good topic for discussion. I especially like the focus on presence. How true that characteristic is applicable in my line of work. More importantly, since it is so essential for me professionally to posess that attribute the same presence about being there is necessary in the environment one works, socializes, and exists on a daily basis with family, friends, co-workers and volunteers who give their time to projects to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable among us.

  • Mea culpa! I am painfully remembering all the times I check my e-mails while I am supposed to be listening to people in my office or completing a case’s paperwork on the bench while trying–at the same time–to carefully listen to lawyers and litigants in that case. I am NOT showing that that I am fully engaged, fully “present”. Shame on me.

  • Dan, your message hits home with me. I remember in my first months of being a solopreneneur, I was very focused on how I was “showing up” at various events where there were potential clients and partners. And I thought it was important to show up “big,” like I saw others doing. Of course, I was seeing their outward charisma. Then one day, I realized that trying to be like them wasn’t authentic (duh!). My energy was calm, quiet…more glowing than gushing. Once I embraced that, I was able to be truly present for myself and others.

    As a coach, I’m grateful for the gifts that my craft has brought to me – the ability to be fully present, nonjudgmental, curious, open, transparent, safe, deeply listening. I admit, I’m not able to hold that ideal presence 100% of the time, but I do know when I slip out of it and how to slip back into it. If everyone practiced what you share in this post, the world would change! Thank you!

  • Henri Nouwen was truly a gifted, compassionate man, priest. I am envious of your opportunity to sit at the feet of this wise and insightful man. Your thoughts are exactly what we need in this world of distractions and demands. Nouwen taught his readers how to move from loneliness to solitude. In solitude we encounter the presence of God and as we are present with Him we received from Him that which is needful in the moment. Thanks for the insights.

  • Thank you, Dan, for my “God-moment” today reminding me of this book by Fr. Nouwen. It was given to me by my pastor at the end of a very difficult Lenten journey for me many years ago- I had been feeling lost and lonely and Fr. Nouwen’s words were just what I needed. This year has me feeling similarly, and I’m going to go get my book and re-read it.
    I also can’t agree more on your thoughts about presence. When I can be present for those I lead like this, it is good for both our souls and coincidentally has great positive impact on our organization. I would add that I’ve found it takes conscious self-care on my part to be this present for others. I have to create space for myself to and not be constantly “on the go”, and when I don’t my ability to be present for others suffers.
    Thanks again! God Bless!

  • A very inspirational and honest post Dan! The power of being present is something I strive for, but is also something I struggle with especially when it comes to having homework on the brain. The idea that being present can be practiced is an encouraging reminder! I want to be able to offer my presence to others in a meaningful way. Thank you for sharing!

  • As usual your observation opens a window into who we are and what we project. While I have no reason to discount Jennifer’s take on her dais seatmate, I’ll offer a third take.

    Before taking the stage or microphone for an important engagement, I devote considerable energy assessing the needs and tone of the assembled audience. As a speaker (or auctioneer) my job is to share a message with the audience. While Jennifer may have been cheated from personal attention on the dais, I would not necessarily fault the speaker for concentrating on his audience and the setting’s energy.

    Leading with your best self requires setting aside your personal self for others. So, I would add focus to the mix of charisma and presence.

  • This makes me think of the comments about Jacqueline Kennedy, who many said, that when she spoke to them, at a party room filled with people, that is was as if you were the only person in the room.

  • Dan, really great post! I’ve been thinking of and contemplating on this subject for quite a while, on how to really live in the moment and not have a bunch of thoughts – including the classic “what to say next” – while listening to someone. I suppose it can be harder for introverts, but like you said, with practice we can get better.

  • Genuine presence is a gift to others, and is indicative of true caring. It also builds trust and openness – invaluable for building a team, and leading with our best selves. Good reminder, Dan. Thank you.

  • When i am tired or rushed, I have to push myself to be present — to really listen to the other person and give them the attention their thoughts deserve. Thanks for the reminder of the difference!

  • >