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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Leadership is All About ‘Presence’

Authors, Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar[1] argued that ‘presence’ is the commonest trait that is shared by great actors, political leaders, and CEOs. “Presence” is nothing but the ability to command the attention of others. It is more of the “ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others. People endowed with this ability can easily connect themselves with the thoughts and feelings of others” as easily as the actors on the stage do with the audience in the whole of the auditorium. It is through such ‘connections’ and ‘authenticity’ that actors on the stage make the audience laugh or cry along with them. An extention of this analogy makes ‘Presence’ an  effective tool in the hands of a “leader to engage the full energies and dedication of others to a common end.” That is the ideal way to influence the behavior of others.

Presence as a trait is, indeed, present in every one of us. At the most, one may be endowed with more of it while another with less of it. Nevertheless, presence as a set of skills can as well be cultivated by all of us. All that it calls for is giving up of our habitual patterns of behavior that we prefer to live with, since it makes us feel safe. Doing all those things, which one feels uncomfortable initially, is one sure way of cultivating the trait of ‘presence’. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it lies in all of us, albeit in a dormant stage and all that it calls for is our response to its ‘vibrations’. If you don’t believe it, listen to this story:

There lived a certain Seethayya in the village, Amaravati. His father was revered all over for his benevolence. He became a father figure for all those poor villagers in the hour of their crisis.

For Seethayya, his father was everything. His day began with getting the approval of his father for the activities listed for the day. At dusk, Seethayya used to return to his father to give details of the day’s events. They were thus living happily.

But it didn’t last long.

Seethayya’s father died.

Seethayya, of course was not a kid. He was around 35. And he himself was a father of 4 children. Yet, the death of his father made him cry like a child. No sooner did it dawn on him that he no longer had anyone to share his pleasure and pain than he felt orphaned. His heart was gnawed by the vacuum that his father’s demise had created in his life.

Nanna! (father) was no more – and that was what Seethayya was not able to digest.

He was there a day before. Bathing in Krishna at the dawn of the day, he, wrapped in a dhoti (long cloth), used to sit in the verandah beside the pillar, and pray to god silently. But today the pillar is alone. There is no Nanna. The verandah bore a vacant look. For him, it was dreadful to look at the verandah.

“Where is nanna?” he was crying.

Through his sobs, his childhood reeled in front of him – his father’s waiting at the gate for him to return from the school, the sudden glow radiating across his face on noticing his return from the school, driven by joy tossing him on to his shoulders and enquiring all about the day’s happenings at the school – all that nostalgia rolled in front of him making his sobbing unstoppable. None could console him.

Hearing the death of Seethayya’s father, the whole village assembled in the front yard of his house. Everyone anxiously tried to console Seethayya. They were whispering among themselves: Maharaju! – the blessed one – brought a Lakshmidevi-like daughter-in-law, saw grandsons, handed over the reins of everything he built to his Sri Ramudu-like son, watched from behind Seethayya’s progress appreciatively… And like a ripe fruit dropped off.” Then, they said encouragingly to Seethayya, “you should not cry at his death for he enjoyed every gift of life and, as every living being has to die, he also passed away”.

None of these words could, of course, console Seethayya, nor could lift him up from his unfathomable sorrow. The whole village stood motionless overawed by the demise of Seethayya – who was indeed the savior of many of them – with a blank stare of incomprehension of what to do next.

Amidst this silence, Rangayya suddenly walked in whisking his uttareeyam (upper cloth) and started ordering everyone: “Come on! Get up! A lot is on hand to do. Why blank look? Great are those who passed away! We cannot go with them! Come on, get up. We have to do our dharma – duty. Come on! Start.”

“Bhadrayya, get the bamboos.”

“Move, Subbayya, get into action, Sun is advancing fast already, get the dead body out for ceremonial bath.”

“Arrey Lachhiga, draw water from the well – make arrangements for Seethayya’s bath.”

“You, Ramayya, make fire … take hold of arrangements for taking the body to cremation.”

Thus, Rangayya ordered everyone to do something or the other associated with the funeral rites.

The whole assemblage, as though life had re-entered it, at once moved into action. Rangayya, holding Seethayya’s hand gently, pulled him up and led him towards the well. Seethayya could drag his feet towards the well and manage to take bath.

Rangayya guided Seethayya through the sacred rituals that a son had to offer to the dead at home and led the whole village with the dead body to the Krishna Ghat – the cremation ground.

All through the procession to the cremation ground, Rangayya held the hand of Seethayya. Once the body reached the cremation ground, he escorted Seethayya to make pradakshina – walking around his father’s body thrice and assisted him in consigning the body to the sacred fire.

Within an hour everything was completed.

That’s where the story ends.

But what it tells us about leadership is very significant. Usually, hearing the death of a neighbor, villagers rush to pay their respects to the departed soul and squat around the dead body in a hapless mood. Unless someone pulls up courage and takes over the command of the sobbing assemblage and gently nudges them into action, the impasse would remain.

That is what Rangayya, a commoner from the village, did at Seethayya’s house. He nudged everyone into action with appropriate commands. He brought chaitanya into the assemblage that had stayed in achetana, motionless. He guided Seethayya through the rituals.

That is the “presence” which enabled Rangayya to connect himself with the assemblage and command everyone for doing one or the other work related to the funeral rites of Seethayya’s father. He asked someone to bring the dead body into the courtyard, directed someone to draw water from the well for Seethayya’s bath and thus arranged for everything required for Seethayya to pay ceremonial obeisance to his dead father – all by himself, moving around the scene of action and making everyone work as family members to enable Seethayya come out of the grief and perform the funeral rites.

Now, one may question: How is it only Rangayya did it out of such a big assemblage? The answer is obvious: it came from within – Rangayya completely lived in that moment – in its Sthabdhata, stillness – and, on his own volition, handled the unexpected: he reached out to build relationships with others, including Seethayya, empathizing with his sorrow by expressing feelings appropriate to the occasion with the right words and thereby, sounding authentic in his
commands, all with a clear understanding of himself and what he was ordering. All these elements plus his mind and heart being into what he was doing, could ultimately make him lead everyone including the grief-stricken Seethayya through the funeral rites.

There is yet another question that merits critiquing here: How is it that all the villagers obeyed Rangayya, though he had no authority over them? Rangayya certainly had no authority over any one of them in the assemblage. But, the purpose behind his commands had sanctified his orders. And, most importantly, he did not order anyone with an expectation that they would obey him. He merely voiced what he felt appropriate to the occasion. As seen earlier, when the whole assemblage was drowned in a sea of soka – sorrow, someone had to pump action into the scene, and that was what Rangayya did. He merely exhibited his responsibility on the occasion. And that was what granted power to his orders, generating action from the assemblage. The story is thus a subtle pointer to: “Leadership is a universal responsibility.”

However, when it comes to organizations, leadership has to be formal. Nevertheless, even the formal leadership must be endowed with the trait of ‘presence’; otherwise, it is sure to fail. Unless the leader – as an actor on the stage connects himself with the audience through his action – is able to connect himself with the team by being literally in it, he may not be able to sell his “vision” for the organization and make them work for its accomplishment. The moral of the story is that every leader in the organization – at whatever level – must emulate Rangayya, be prepared to be flexible and do the most unexpected by living in it, fully guided by the axiom – “let thoughts go, let feelings be.”


[1] Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar (2003), Leadership Presence, Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


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