The Importance of Leadership Presence, with Dr. Vinod Jain


Dr. Vinod Jain (left) and Danny Nsouli (right). Graphic: Danny Nsouli

Interviewer: Danny Nsouli

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Cyber Security Software Engineer Danny Nsouli interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice.

Leadership presence is often seen as a mix of personal and interpersonal skills that, when cultivated and used by a leader, sends all the right signals to those who interact and connect with the leader. In this episode of the MITRE Knowledge Driven Podcast, Principal Economics and Business Analyst, Dr. Vinod Jain, shares his experience in unlocking leadership presence and offers insightful guidance on how anyone can achieve their own sense of presence.

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Podcast transcript

Danny (00:13):

Hello everyone. My name is Danny Nsouli and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Today, we’ll be discussing the topic of leadership presence with principal economics and business analyst, Dr. Vinod Jain.

Danny (00:24):

Vinod, would you like to introduce yourself and tell the listeners a little bit about your professional background and experience at MITRE?

Vinod (00:31):

Yeah. Danny, thank you for this opportunity. I am working in CAMS, which are the Center for Acquisition Management and [Solutions]. I’ve been in MITRE since 2004. Professionally I grew up in India and came to the United States in 1982 as a grad student to do my PhD in chemistry. So, then the last 30 plus years I’ve been a technology and management consultant and recently got my certification in leadership coaching.

Danny (01:02):

Great. And could you start by defining leadership presence and the attributes you see in people that have this quality?

Vinod (01:09):

Yes. There is a book called Leadership Presence by Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, they define leadership presence as the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others. I like this definition a lot and leaders at all levels have to specially get tuned to that, essentially again, the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others. And if you ask me about what are some of the attributes in people who show leadership presence, I’ll say they often are calm and even handed under pressure. Also, they kind of know who they are and what they’re about, they have a heightened sense of self-awareness and they’re genuinely interested in others, and they are fully present and available.

Danny (02:06):

And why do you think leadership presence is an important skill for people to develop?

Vinod (02:11):

Well, I’ve been working, as I mentioned, for MITRE since 2004, and for many years I’ve been looking for this quality that allows me to be confident, relaxed, and at ease. And I had this desire to build close personal relationships and have some amount of visibility and impact in MITRE. And I believe learning skills of leadership presence allows you to have those qualities

Danny (02:45):

Personally, for you, when did you first become aware of leadership presence in your own life and how did that then lead you to becoming an official coach on it?

Vinod (02:55):

So, I’ve been kind of a searcher throughout my whole life looking for greater meaning, greater purpose. Three, four years back, I was struggling and going through a bout of low self-confidence and a sense of low energy, and I was trying to find some way forward. During this time, I also went through a cancer diagnosis and came in touch with my own mortality, and I felt like I needed to have a greater sense of purpose, authenticity. And during this time worked with a coach and I also enrolled in a leadership coaching program. And all of that brought me closer to understanding what leadership presence is all about.

Danny (03:49):

So, with that knowledge, how would you guide someone into developing their own leadership presence?

Vinod (03:56):

Yeah, there are a bunch of things one has to do to sort of get closer to leadership presence. By the way, let me sort of explain the word leadership presence. A lot of the things I talk about are generally true for anyone. I believe in MITRE we’re all very accomplished people and we come to the organization with good credentials, and we may or may not have big managerial roles, but in our own way we show leadership. So first of all, leadership involves a larger set of people not just people with big titles and so. So that’s one thing.

Vinod (04:40):

Second thing is the heart of leadership presence is sort of this heightened sense of self-awareness. And I think a lot of people feel that they know themselves, that they actually are obsessed about themselves. They constantly think about who they are and what they want. But when I say awareness, I’m talking about a awareness at a deeper level. By that I mean, what is our authentic purpose? What is our voice? What is that unique aspect of us that we want people to know about us? And without that, we keep getting defined by others. If other people say you’re great, we feel like, okay, we must be good. If other people say, hey, you’re not doing well. We feel lousy. But my premise is that once we have a very good feel of what are we all about, we then don’t need to seek this external validation, which many of us are tempted to go for.

Vinod (05:50):

The other part is that to show leadership presence, we have to come a place of calmness and centeredness. It’s easier said than done a lot of time. We are living very busy life and we’re going from meeting to meeting and it’s hard to show a sense of calmness and centeredness. So those are two specific areas where I emphasize development for leadership presence.

Danny (06:22):

Makes sense. So, in your coaching workshops you start by asking people how they would rate their leadership presence out of 10. So, I was curious, what rating do you most commonly see people give themselves?

Vinod (06:35):

Yeah. During my workshop I usually do a pulse check, make sure that I am finding how people are feeling at that moment. 80% of people are usually around five or six rating, some people have eight or nine and few people have two or three. And I had a episode during the last workshop where I had just gone through a centering exercise where I do a five minute guided meditation to bring everybody at ease. And one person said, because he went through that exercise, he was feeling the presence of eight. He was feeling a heightened sense of presence because I had guided the audience through a guided meditation.

Danny (07:25):

Journaling is an activity that is encouraged a lot in self-development content, is that something that people can use to better chart a path towards gaining their presence?

Vinod (07:36):

Yeah. Journaling has been my favorite activity for many, many, many years. Number one, it allows you to have a record of your deep thoughts and feelings for a period of time. In fact, I have maintained journals since my eighth or ninth grade. And during those early days, I would put down my biggest hopes for myself. I would put down a good poetry if I found one. I would put down sources of my inspiration. So I think journaling helps you to dig deeper and get a feel of who you want to be, who you are. That’s number one.

Vinod (08:17):

Secondly, if I’m feeling a special, difficult moment and I need to sort out my feelings, a lot of time I just take a page from a journal and just write down everything which is coming to my mind. I guess, by just putting thoughts on a piece of paper allows you to see what is in your head more clearly and it gives you a sense of relief that you have spelled out what’s kind of in a dark corner in your mind. So, I encourage people to use journaling as a tool.

Danny (08:55):

As a MITRE employee how do you wish to see people ideally using these practices in our workplace context?

Vinod (09:03):

So there are a couple of things I want people to do about leadership presence. First of all, I want them to become aware of how other people are viewing them, how they’re connecting to other people and look at it in a objective way. It’s important for us to show up from a place of centeredness, focus with openness and flexibility. A lot of time, because either we are too busy or we are worried about something which happened earlier in the morning or we are worried about a meeting which is going to happen tomorrow, our mind is scattered, and we are not showing up as whole. So, in my workshop I play scenarios and go through exercises for people to become more aware of what they have to do.

Danny (09:58):

Since you workshop a lot with people new to this concept, are there any common myths or misconceptions you see people believe about leadership presence?

Vinod (10:08):

Yeah, there are a whole bunch of myths around it. And in fact, I used to have myths of my own. For many years I believe this exotic term called leadership presence is not for me, that to have leadership presence you either needed to be very charismatic or be very talented or have something special about you. That only you can have leadership presence. And there’s also a myth that a leadership presence is something you have to act on, perform in a certain way to impress others, and that’s not true. And also, it’s not based around some formula you can find in a book, it’s really very internal. So those are some of the myths I see. Does that resonate with you?

Danny (11:02):

Yes. I noticed there are a lot of misconceptions about charisma specifically and that being an important part of leadership presence when in reality, it’s not that big of a factor, right?

Vinod (11:15):

That’s right. We always think that other people can have that presence maybe celebrities, maybe a presidential candidate or somebody in the media, but we are not entitled to have that sense of presence. But what I discovered for myself is that all of us, literally every single one of us, can develop a sense of presence and belonging and connectivity. I think many times we are solely missing that in our workplace.

Danny (11:50):

On a different note. Would you say that there is neurological component to this such as someone modifying their normal behaviors so that they can help themselves attain this presence more naturally?

Vinod (12:02):

Yeah. There is a neurological component to it because the opposite of having leadership presence is being in a state of anxiety, fear, and feeling inadequacy. And a lot of these feelings are sort of driven from our brain. And during my presence workshop I often talk about how our brain works. There are different parts of our brain, which are trying to do different things. There is a large part of our brain called neocortex, and that’s a part of our brain which is more conscious, more rational. Whereas there is a part of our brain focused on identifying any potential threats around us. And once it senses any terribleness or any threat, even if it’s very, very small, it gets into this heightened place where it wants to respond to that quickly. You sort of get into this fight, flight, or freeze mode. And if the threat is large, people sometimes just get frozen. They don’t know what to do, and they get into some kind of a shock.

Vinod (13:13):

So what I tell people is that they have to first start working from a place of a little calmness and shift from this heightened mental state driven by amygdala and get to our rational mind. And once we get there, we start to see a larger set of possibility and we start to find solutions that are effective and that work ultimately in our interest. So yeah, we have to become aware of our emotions, our thoughts because both those ultimately affect how we behave.

Danny (13:50):

Well said. And in your experience, have you seen any good examples of people expressing their leadership presence at MITRE?

Vinod (13:58):

Yeah, no. I’ve seen many examples of leadership presence, people who are tuned in, in terms of having effective relationships with others. Before important meetings these people do a pulse check of the people around them, they want to build a connection with those in the audience, and then they talk business. And there are people who are deeply interested in others. I know I’ve had group leaders or managers who have shown deep interest in me and when I see that I feel an immediate sense of comfort and that eases my own sense of wellbeing. So, there are leaders in MITRE and people in MITRE who have that presence, who are very good listeners, who are good storytellers and who are not shy about sharing with others who they are about and share stories from their own lives about their kids, about their families or the weekend they’ve had. And I noticed that all the time.

Danny (15:03):

Great. And to wrap up, are there any resources you would recommend outside of this podcast for people to continue to learn about leadership presence?

Vinod (15:11):

Yeah. So there are three resources. I’ll talk about one is this book I mentioned earlier. It’s called Leadership Presence by Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar. There is a Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy who is a well-known author. The Ted Talk topic is your body language may shape who you are. And MITRE has this Percipio website and last time I checked, there are a couple of videos available on leadership presence. So, people can go to that website and find some training material or leadership presence.

Vinod (15:47):

And I will say that bringing leadership presence in play sounds harder than it really is. I think by being aware of how we show up and by focusing our attention on present moment and by learning to stay calm, we can make big strides in this direction. And I started to feel amazing results once I started to show up better. Once I started to listen to people better. Once I started to process my own sense of purpose and authentic self, I started to trust other people better. And in the last couple of years, I’ve seen amazing results and started to feel much more happier. So, I have the same vision for others. And if anybody wants to talk to me more about it that would be my pleasure.

Danny (16:49):

All right. Well thank you for coming on to discuss this topic. I’d like to give a quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven enterprise for making this show possible. And again, thank you Vinod for coming on to share your knowledge.

Vinod (17:00):

My pleasure Danny and thank you for your work.

Danny Nsouli is an Associate Cyber Security Software Engineer. He has a passion for computer graphics and enjoys learning about front-end solutions for consumer-facing project components such as data visualizations.

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