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‘Presence’ and Democratic Leadership



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While a Ph.D. student, I worked at a leading Center for Public Affairs affiliated with the university I attended, as my mentor was a faculty member there. I conducted research for and with my lead professor on books related to the American presidency, but I participated in the broader life of the Center, too, and had opportunities to meet with its director for a variety of reasons. I actually knew the Director personally, as I had been a student in a graduate seminar on theories of international politics that he had led, a course I remember with fondness to this day. Before becoming the center‘s leader, this professor had been a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation and had published an astonishing number of books. He was, in short, a deeply accomplished man.

One day I was called to the Director’s office and was ushered in to see him. But I did not speak with him for most of an hour as he initiated and answered telephone calls in my presence. When I offered to leave several times, he gestured that I should remain. And so I sat and slowly began to fume at what I then took to be supreme rudeness. At that time, I did not think (perhaps better put, I chose not to imagine) that this busy executive intended any slight, but it was nonetheless clear to me that I surely ranked near the bottom of his priorities at that moment.

Nonetheless, then as now, I soon concluded that no leader should knowingly treat anyone with whom he or she interacts with such apparent disrespect, even if unintended. As I sought to make sense of what I found so objectionable about this incident involving an individual I otherwise deeply admired, I concluded that he had robbed me of standing by treating me as insufficiently significant even to accord me the courtesy of allowing me to leave while he conducted his conversations. He had, without realizing it, refused to dignify me by declining to give me his undivided attention, his presence. That such treatment stung is perhaps obvious, since I can still recall the event.

And that is the point. Leaders must strive to interact with all with whom they work in ways that accord those individuals standing and dignity, so as to maximize the opportunity that their interaction will be fruitful for both parties and for the achievement of their shared interests. Modern-day researchers in multiple fields have all underscored the central import of this apparently simple conclusion: presence matters profoundly. Analysts of communication have addressed this concern by arguing that leaders, especially, should practice active listening and center their complete attention on those with whom they interact. Indeed, these scholars have gone so far as to develop schema by which the efficacy of such interactions may be evaluated.

Theologians and mystics have likewise long suggested that such centeredness and attention to the other is the only known path to knowledge of God and therefore the way to treat others. One of my favorites of these authors of recent decades was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who once captured the multiple levels on which all human interaction operates when highlighting the importance of presence:

The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words and it is beyond speech and is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our essential unity. What we have to be is what we are (Inchausti, 1998, p. 124).

Meanwhile, leadership theorists have also emphasized the significance of leaders developing capacities truly to listen, to be present and to be open to all people with whom they interact. Taken together and across multiple fields of inquiry, analysts have found that presence implies at least three key qualities that are equally central to effective leadership. When considered in light of the demands of self-governance, it appears that leaders’ capacity to practice genuine presence is essential to democracy.

First, presence requires a disciplined willingness to be physically present for the person with whom one is interacting. Leaders are busy people and most confront many demands arising from multiple sources. The Center Director chose not to be present in our encounter and I left resentful as a result. But, to place the matter in today’s context, apart from avoiding the rudeness of, for example, checking one’s cell phone and answering texts, or answering email on a tablet during a conversation between individuals or among a group, physical presence demands more. It requires that leaders actually listen and provide their undivided attention to those with whom they are conversing. Such concentration dignifies the other with whom they are interacting and contributes insights into what is at play at various levels of interaction and why, even as it offers respect to the perspective and concerns of the individual(s) with whom the leader is relating. It appears increasingly difficult today for many people to practice this discipline, as the lure of the screen and the “newest app” often prove siren-strong. Nevertheless, leaders must concentrate on ensuring their full availability or presence to others if they are to exercise their responsibilities ethically and effectively. When they do not so behave, they may create resentments and ill will and may even prompt those they fail to dignify to work actively to undermine them.

A second characteristic or quality involved in assuring presence is empathy, or an ability actively to imagine the situations and perspectives of those with whom one interacts. It seems difficult to overstate the significance of this capacity for leaders if they are to grasp the concerns, emotions, beliefs and values of those with whom they work. They must not only seek openly to engage others’ understandings, hope, fears and dreams if they are to work with those individuals to craft shared aspirations of common action, but also work to see how those with whom they interact have come to their views. The ability to consider the world from others’ vantage points appears essential to successful leadership, but it requires imagination and a willingness to place others’ interests above one’s own for at least long enough to dignify them in their expression. For most leaders this capacity is learned and demands self-discipline, as humans appear naturally to believe our own views should be central in our interactions. To imagine otherwise and to strive to act intentionally on that possibility in all of one’s relationships implies self-reflection, sensitivity and awareness, especially when a leader perceives those with whom she is interacting as exhibiting or pressing ugly qualities, including boorishness, self-absorption, pridefulness or worse. Merton may have been correct that all of humanity is ultimately joined, but that insight does not come easily to most people, and acting on it appears to be yet more difficult. Leaders are challenged both to recognize this reality and to honor it in their interactions and relationships.

Finally, as the characteristics already discussed suggest, presence requires emotional and intellectual openness, and therefore vulnerability. For present purposes, I want to highlight openness as a capacity broader and antecedent to empathy, and one essential to democratic leadership. Understanding is required for presence and leadership but that capacity implies a willingness to be open to the possibilities represented by divergent experiences and viewpoints. One cannot learn if closed to an opportunity or idea before it presents itself. Leaders cannot be present without practicing openness. This seems particularly essential for democratic office holders who are charged with representing the needs of the citizenry they serve. To do so demands that they listen to the many voices represented in their constituencies and genuinely consider even those with which they disagree.

Today’s society provides its leaders many ways and means to engage with the populations they serve, but none can or should substitute for genuine presence. Leaders must be open, reflexive, empathetic and, above all, genuinely respectful if they are to act with presence and to play their rightful roles in self-governance. This responsibility is essential and ethically demanding, and it cannot be gainsaid.




Inchausti, Robert. 1998. Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press).

Publication Date

September 28, 2014