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The Trick to Command Presence

In Season 2, Episode 3 of Game of Thrones, What Is Dead May Never DieLord Varys says to everyone’s favorite character, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister,

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

When he says “a very small man,” Varys is playing with Tyrion’s height, because his real point is that “any man” can cast a very large shadow - if he knows the “trick.”

I’ve had the chance to work with hundreds of CEOs while they’re transforming their businesses, and it’s amazing to watch that trick play out. It’s different from one great CEO to the next, because everyone has their own way of inspiring vision and passion in their people and their own way of convincing people to their point of view.

There is one thing that they have in common, though, and that is what the military calls “command presence.” President Truman once said “Talk softly and walk with a big stick.” USMC General James Mattis said, “Be polite, be kind, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Most people focus on the stick and the killing. CEOs focus on the confidence that comes with talking softly from a position of power.

The Shadow

That power is just a shadow on the wall, right? But it is still real. It doesn’t come from threatening or punishing. It comes from belief and enthusiasm and commitment.

Some CEOs will call me in the middle of the night because they’re so excited about an inspiration that they had. I’m a student of business leaders. They shape my business acumen, so I listen. I know that they’re there because they care so much about their people. They’re thinking, “I have an overwhelming feeling that I can improve something, but how?” RESULTS.com gives them tools they never had before. So they call me, but it’s not to talk about the platform. It’s to talk about their people. They’re thinking, “Let’s transform them together.”

You can imagine how it feels to be around energy like that. But it doesn’t have to be just like that. Other times I work with CEOs who are almost shy, but who still have that command presence and who are just as committed to their people and to their business. Passion resonates at different frequencies for your people. Be sure it's clear and that it reverberates at all frequencies, because it'll resonate a different passion in each one of your people. It doesn’t matter how you project that presence, just so long as it’s there.

The Skipper

What really matters in this equation is that the CEO is the team’s greatest radiator of energy. Their energy, in whichever way they chose to manifest it, is so contagious that people think they’re mad and should be put in an insane asylum. It isn’t easy being a CEO, but when you lead and make decisions, make them confidently.

When you sail in the fog, which happens all the time on the San Francisco Bay, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings, to see the lights and to acknowledge them. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to make your next tack or your next turn. There’s only one skipper that can crew a ship.

But your deckhands are critical. CEOs I’ve worked with who have done this well will voice everyone’s opinion – but they’re the ones who make the decision. These CEOs listen to everyone, and that’s part of the trick of getting the best out of their people. But at the end of the day they know they’re the one setting course. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the voices, but your people are looking for someone to execute and make a decision.

These CEOs build the confidence of their whole team. I’ve been in meetings with them and even when they’re listening, they’re still leading, because their attitude is, “What’s that one new thing we’re going to end up learning from this?” They are Seeking the Magis, Latin for “more” – they’re always seeking the 10-20% improvement that’s still possible.

They work in ranges that are real for people because, that way, they can believe it, too. They make it clear that while we’re starting here, where we’re going is over there, and this is the first step. People of my generation have to see the whole path, from here to where we’re going, before they can really commit to the first step. KPIs are perfect for that, and CEOs who get it can even use measurements to motivate their teams.

The Trick

Every step of the way, the best CEOs are always looking to inspire their people. Since they’re so focused on refining everyone’s contribution and figuring out how the company can help them succeed more, their people start thinking that way, too. When they start communicating with each other in this spirit, everything improves for them individually, and as a team, and for everyone as a company.

That’s the thing about “command.” You can’t win alone. It’s impossible. If you’re going to do it, then your team has to be with you. As a leader you have to let go; you have to make gentle movements on a sensitive rudder.  But if your movements are sure, then your team becomes your hands, and they will allow you to grow. Your passion becomes the wind that fills their sails. CEOs who lead like that make it so their people come to work and they feel like they’re really making a difference.

That’s the essence of the “trick” that Varys talked about. Show your people how powerful they can be, and they will believe that power actually resides in you.