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The Absence of Presence

On a recent conference call, I was working with a team to review the importance and challenge of being present. To clear our minds and get “here,” we engaged in 30 seconds of silence at the beginning of the meeting. After the call, with a telling smile, the leader of the team noted that she had received an email from Jerry during the “getting present” exercise.

While exploring the need for more engaged conversations and effective meetings with a different team, another executive team leader articulated the multitude of distractions in meetings: computer screens up, emails pinging, phones buzzing, texts blinking, slide presentations, and so on.

How many times have you experienced others asking a question right after the answer had just been given? “Our next meeting will be Tuesday the 24th at 8 am.” Short pause and head lifting from computer screen: “When is our next meeting?” This is not only annoying and inefficient, but it can also easily lead to misunderstanding, judgment and dismissal resulting in disrespect, distrust and poor decisions with disparate, if any, execution.

Absence is rooted in “ab-“ meaning away from and “-sense” meaning being; in other words being away from.

Presence is rooted in “pre-” meaning before or in front of and “-sense” meaning being; in other words being in front of or present.

It is interesting to me how closely aligned the definitions are for “presence” (being in front of or before) and “leading” (the most basic meaning of which is to go before). One must “be before” prior to “going before.” Leading is predicated upon presence. Therefore, could it be that the epidemic of the absence of presence is precisely what threatens to diminish leading itself? My client thinks so. How about you?

What to do?

I have already indicated that starting meetings with a moment of silence to empty one’s cup of the chattering mind can be useful. Having 10 seconds of silence between agenda items can also help.

Of course digital technologies can provide very useful resources in meetings. At the same time, establishing agreements about the use of digital technology can augment their effectiveness. Setting aside digital free time to be in front of each other for genuine dialogue goes a long way to leverage the benefits of technology by accessing the collective intelligence, innovation and trust needed for wise decisions and aligned execution.

Developing the discipline of “observing or being a fly on the wall” during a meeting or conversation provides a more nuanced and advanced method for practicing presence. Paradoxically, this intentional detachment dramatically increases presence and its attendants: clarity and wisdom. Research at the University of Michigan indicates that this “fly on the wall” presence results in more robust conversations and better decisions.

In the wider context of Leading Leaders, presence is one of the three pillars for creating the conditions for collective flow.

Here are some tools for assessing what works for you and your team:

1.    On a scale of 1 to 10 grade your presence in meetings; your team’s?

2.    Bring the above question to your team: What works for us? What works against us? What agreements would be helpful to increase our presence?


Other resources to explore this concept in more depth:

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