"Tom," a high level executive in a politically charged atmosphere, recognized that while he has the right ideas for his job, he has only about half as much physical presence as he needs for optimal performance. He inherited a staff of over 500 people, many of them working remotely. As a newcomer in a very politically sensitive environment, Tom was becoming a target in the local media. "I am talking about voice, about stature, about physical moves," he says. "How I walk around. How I talk. How I sit at the table."
Tom's job requires him often to meet with a board of regents in a dark room with small chairs. "I felt I was under physical attack" he wrote to Suzanne about his feelings prior to one board meeting. "Short of breath. Neck in knots. Just overall a crumpled person."
Working with Suzanne helped him realize these warning signals and transform them in the moment through more effective breathing and practicing presence. At her suggestion, he watched the movie "Patton" to see what he could learn about the body of a leader. Tom learned to adapt his management style and body to better match the working environment, without losing himself and his authenticity. He learned to be more directive and became stronger at holding his own vision, so his staff became higher performing, coordinating more effectively toward the desired result.
Tom's notes below have been edited to protect his privacy and to condense the wording. Otherwise, they are his own experiences, presented with his permission.
As Suzanne and I discussed, I went and bought "Patton." Here's some of what I learned from the movie:
1.) Wear the right uniform. Patton sure knew what to wear when. The right uniform signals, "There's serious work ahead. We need to take it seriously."
Lounging around in super-casual clothes with my wild shirt untucked doesn't present a serious enough image. I need to create a uniform that fits my role, but it's got to be authentic to me. The traditional suit and tie wouldn't blend in here; it would lead to trouble. I've got some work to do to create my right uniform.
2.) Present a more public presence. I need to be more present to the hundreds of people on my staff. Patton was always out in that jeep with the troops, standing and watching troops. In times of danger, he was up front. He was willing to get his hands dirty. I need to be out like he is in the jeep. I need to be out in the community and out in the company campus. But do I just visit everywhere regularly? How can I better show I care?
3.) Practice presence. I've read that Patton's daughter used to find him making faces in the mirror. "I am practicing my war face," he said. I can practice presenting a stronger, truer face in several places:
Walking around my office and the main area. Though I have to be careful in exercising authority that may be someone else's, I do need to recognize that I am in this position of strong power and show it.
General presence in staff meetings. Where do I sit? What face? What eye contact? I realize I've been slouching too much. Again and again, I catch myself leaning back and choose instead to put myself forward -- engaged.
Rather than let meetings deteriorate into too much ineffective ritual -- especially check-ins that go into too much detail -- I need to project more focused control to this group. Maybe it's a matter of somatics rather than words?
Stronger general presence in Board meetings. These tend to be long executive sessions in the dark room with the lousy chairs. I usually sit in the back, away from the table. It's not clear that I have to do this. Maybe I just sit at the table?
Stronger public presence. How can I stand and interact more effectively at the podium during public meetings? How can I better handle inane questions from people who are taking potshots?
4) Use my authority to challenge staff to do their best. I practiced a Patton technique last week when I said to my staff that I had never known a finer, more able group but that they were not operating as a team. I needed to know where they stood. "Here's what we need to do," I said. "If you don't want to be on the team, there's no shame in that. Let Elaine (my fabulous secretary) know within two hours and we'll find someone else. But, if you want to stay -- and I hope you do -- here's our agenda and here are the rules."
5) Face the complainers and gossips head-on. Elaine said she was worried that I did not know of all the politics going on, especially things said about me. They say I'm out to lunch, absent minded, not on top of things. They complain that I don't work Fridays and leave early each afternoon if possible.
When I told Elaine I knew all this gossip, she was relieved. Then I stood my ground with the staff. "I know what's said about me," I said. And I focused on the real issues -- all the politics around us, and the fact that we're in the midst of difficult change processes. I reminded them that it's easier to blame me, saying: "I don't understand", than to understand, because understanding makes them accountable. And they don't want that responsibility.
Encouraged by Patton's model, I not only let the staff know I wasn't willing to be their scapegoat. I also showed them more of the leader who has the guts to stand up and fight those who were opposing the good work we're paid to do. Anyone who wasn't on board, I said, could let Elaine know.
6) Use logistics to help create a presence of focus and authority. I covered one wall of my office with a huge whiteboard that rolls out. Before the meeting, I put up the objectives and the conditions of satisfaction. In setting the stage I had very much in mind Patton in front of the flag at the start of the movie.
Some of Tom's results from working with the Patton exercise:
When I first confronted the staff, I sure felt like I was up and wobbling on a surfboard. But because I had practiced being a beginner, I didn't feel scared. Just wobbly.
My staff has been more cooperative and effective.
I think I will strengthen my somatics, my voice, and my presence if I follow the quote by Marianne Williamson that Nelson Mandela used for his inauguration:
Our greatest fear is not that we're inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we're powerful beyond measure. It is our light that frightens us, not our darkness. We ask ourselves, who am I to be powerful, beautiful? Well, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God, and your playing small does NOT serve the world.