Absence: The Number One Obstacle to Presence

(Original article copyrighted in 2008)

I was at a team meeting recently where a group of us were talking about the leadership training program in an organization employing about 275 people. One person in the group asked the CEO, “What’s the opposite of leadership?” The CEO without any hesitation immediately said, “Absence!”

How interesting! I was intrigued by this view of leadership because I often think of absence being the opposite of presence. It made me start to wonder if presence and leadership are synonymous.

One way to compare absence and presence is to examine the distinction between self-consciousness and consciousness-of-self. When we are self-conscious, we often feel awkward, clumsy and alone, with a sense of separation (or absence) from the outside world. When we are really present, we are quite aware of ourselves in a balanced way as we fully engage in the activity of the moment and we connect to those around us so that we no longer feel separate, alone, afraid.

This is especially true when we speak in public or take on a leadership role. When we are anxious, we become self-absorbed and fearful about looking inept, making mistakes or forgetting what we planned to say. If, instead, we stay aware of ourselves as we focus our attention outward, placing a priority on the people in our audience, becoming open to receiving them, being genuinely curious about them, and thinking about how we can be of service to them, we lose that self-consciousness, we are in-the-moment, and we can then drop into a shared, collective place with our audience. This is being fully present!

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