Presence: the other success principle

(Note:  This is a post I wrote in January, 2014, but with the recent success of the movie, Eddie the Eagle, I thought the message would again resonate – John R Childress)


Presence is more than just being there.  ~Malcolm Forbes

Some people walk into a crowded room and no one notices.  Others enter and the whole room stops what they are doing.  People instantly notice their presence and their “presence”. While some may attribute this phenomenon to stunning beauty or abnormal tallness, expensive clothes or flashy jewellery, personal presence that impacts others is often more internal than external.

eddieeagleOne of my favorite examples of internal presence is “Eddie the Eagle”.  If you don’t remember, there was a young Englishman, Michael Edwards, who became the darling of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, British Columbia, Canada as a rather lackluster ski jumper.  In fact, Eddie was so bad, he finished last in every trial and competition.  Yet Eddie became a sought after and cherished personality in a sport where even the winners are routinely forgotten.

So why did Eddie the Eagle have such presence?  And where does impactful presence come from?  Here is a hint from a recent interview of Michael Edwards:

How does it feel to have essentially made a living from being a heroic failure?

I have never considered myself a failure at all. I managed to qualify for the Olympic Games in Calgary. I went there and I did the best I could with what I had, which wasn’t very much. I knew that I was going to come last, as I’d only been doing it for two years and everybody else had been jumping for 20 years. But for me, getting there was my gold medal. But I am still amazed that I’m still earning a small income – not very much – 24 years later.

Alignment Delivers Presence

After coaching, advising and consulting with CEOs and senior executives for the past 30+years, I have seen many who are leaders in title only, and a few who have impactful presence no matter what their title.  What are the elements that help deliver personal presence?  I have a theory, based on some of the principles of human social behavior, the recent findings of neuropsychology, and years of observations and interviews.

My theory is that three very crucial ingredients have to be in alignment in order for real presence to burst forth.  These ingredients are Mental State, Skills/Ability, and the “Package”. Remember that presence is determined not by the individual concerned, but by the audience.  Too many individuals believe they have “the X factor” because of their good looks, or their wealth, or their bravado.  But it’s really the audience who determines whether or not an individual has “impactful presence”.

Too many celebrities are simply legends in their own minds.

Here’s how I believe personal presence works.  Mental State, Skills/Ability, and Package need to be aligned, or as one person explained to me, they must have an integrity when put together. Mental State comprises belief in self, respect for others, calm and peaceful thinking, with an inner security based on the belief that “I’m OK and You’re OK”.

Skills/Ability is an understanding of the task at hand and an honest evaluation of your capabilities.  People with presence aren’t necessarily the best at their craft, but they are confident of their abilities, what ever the level.  They don’t compare themselves to others, they honestly deliver all they can at that moment.  They seek to express, not impress.

The “Package” refers to how one carries themselves, even when no one is looking.  In the early days of my business career there was a term, “dress for success” and many people believed that the suit made the person.  Presence is not about the dress, although through respect the person with personal presence tends to dress appropriately for the audience or group.  Not to stand out and not to blend in, but to not allow the package to detract the audience from the real person and the message.  Shoes are shined and well kept.  Clothes are clean. Jewellery is personal, not for show. Even Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, modern iconoclasts in their business dress, do so with a sense of style, not grunge.

PRESENCEMy visual of these three elements goes like this.  And when any one is out of alignment, personal power and presence suffers.

Coming back to the story of Eddie the Eagle, here was an individual who knew and respected his skill level, believed in himself and his desire to express the best he could deliver, and presented a package that was true to who he was.  And people loved Eddie, not because he was the best ski jumper, but because he was genuine in all three aspects.  And even today, people remember Eddie the Eagle fondly and with genuine admiration for how he “showed up” (his personal presence) during the 1988 Olympics.

Musical Performance Presence

I am working on developing a workshop for young classical musicians (my daughter is a violinist) in what I call “Musical Performance Presence”.  Basically, when I watch young musicians come out on stage to perform, in the majority of the cases they may perform well (better than Eddie the Eagle), but due a lack of understanding about the elements of personal and performance presence, they make very little impact on the audience (aside from Mom and Dad in the front row!).

The audience doesn’t just want to be entertained, they want to be transformed.

In most young classical music performers, their Mental State, Skills and Package are not in alignment and no one is teaching them about these important ingredients.  There was an interesting study done about music competition winners where random people were asked to view clips of performers during a competition, with sound only and then with visual only, and asked to predict the winner.  In every case they picked the winner correctly when only seeing the visual, without the sound.  The audience responds to an aligned presence, as do the judges I suspect. (see also: BBC)

Anyway, I will let you know when my Musical Performance Presence workshop is ready.  Let me know if you have any thoughts on this topic.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Presence: the other success principle

  1. Great post John. On so many fronts.


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