Building Your Leadership Aura
In This Blog: Why do some people just impress you as leaders and some just do not? I believe it is a matter of “aura”. Aura is that distinctive atmosphere that just surrounds someone. It is an energy field that emanates from a human being. True, some people just naturally have it. Nevertheless, if you are committed to the effort, you can create the aura you want to project and do it in an authentic way.
Three people stand out for me with respect to something I have come to call “Leadership Aura”. There was just something about how they presented themselves that immediately caused me to see them as leaders. Each, in their own way, demanded my attention and reaction. Let me clarify a couple of words I used in the last sentence. By “presented” I do not mean that acted to draw my attention to them. I mean that something that emanated from them, like energy, made it impossible for me not to really notice them. I used the word “demanded, however they did nothing purposefully to attract or keep my attention, I simply could not do otherwise. There was something in how they walked, how they talked, in how they simply were in their being.
Several years back when I was the CEO of Apollo Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, my assistant came into my office to inform me that the Aga Khan had requested a meeting with me. In fact, he was waiting in the lobby. She seemed excited and deemed the meeting very important so I agreed. I few minutes later, in walked a very distinguished man in what was obviously an expensive, bespoke-tailored Savile Row suit. He carried himself with confidence, charm and fluidity. I was immediately comfortable with him. He extended his hand and quietly said, “Hello.” I thought, “I think he is British.” I invited him to sit and we spent the fastest hour together that I can recall. He let me know that he was in town to commission a new boarding school that was to open about four city blocks from the hospital. He wanted to see the hospital that would likely be used by students, faculty and other associated with the school. We talked healthcare and education over tea. He, in departing, asked me to be his guest at commissioning of the boarding school the next day. I had so enjoyed the man’s company and energy that I immediately accepted his invitation.
After he left, I learned who this “Aga Khan” actually is: Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan IV, is the Imam of Nizari Ismailism. He is the religious leader of the about 10% of the world’s Shia Islam (between five and fifteen million people). He is considered the “proof of God on earth”. This notion was affirmed the following day when I left the hospital to attend the school commissioning. As I left the hospital compound, I noticed that the streets were lined with people, six deep. Some were sitting in chairs and on boxes, clearly indicating they had been there for some time, maybe overnight. I asked the driver what was going on. He said, “They are waiting to see the Aga Khan.” I was stunned. Unfortunately, though I had honor of VIP seating, my experience was very different from the previous day. I could not even close to the Aga Khan. Everyone was vying for his attention. I actually felt a little sorry for him as I saw him being pulled in a hundred different direction. However, he appeared nonplussed, taking it all in stride.
My point in sharing this story is that I did not know who the Aga Khan was when I met him. I was not impacted by him based on his title or influence over millions of people. I was struck by some innate leadership quality and characteristic he carried within him, which emanated from him to affect my reception to him.
Less you think that what I am talking about is related to power or money, the second of the two people I am talking about is what I would call a “Beach Bum” having myself grown up on the beaches of Southern, California. In the Cayman Island, when away from the hospital, I enjoyed hanging out on the beach with a constant group of people (about ten of us). We fished, we swam, we sat around and “chewed the fat”, listen to music and, to be honest we drank a bit of beer. There was no formal leader of our “Beach Club”, but I did notice (because I observe for this kind of thing), that whenever the Bum was around he seemed to command everyone’s attention and focus. It was not that he tried to control the situation; it just seemed that we all wanted to do whatever it was that he suggested. He made being on the beach fun for all of us. In fact, he seem to radiate fun and he was not even trying. He was just being himself. That is the thing with “aura”. You cannot fake it. It is there, good or bad, or it is not.
Moreover, let me make it clear, there is such thing as a negative aura. Have you ever met or seen someone who sucks the life out of a situation? I once had a boss, I just could not bring myself to like. He was, certainly in my opinion, not a nice person. Whenever he came into a group, two things happened: One, he immediately made clear to everyone that he was in charge. Two, everyone else immediately shut down. It was always interesting to me that he felt he could not command the room unless he declared himself and he never seemed to see that he dis-enrolled people rather than enrolled them. The room seemed, for me, to get darker when he walked in. I hated the aura. It was a case of an aura repulsing rather than attracting.
If you will accept my argument that an “aura” is part of the kind of leader you are at any point, the question becomes, “How do you create the kind of aura that makes you powerful and positively influential?”
My first two examples of leaders whose auras affected me positively have one thing in common. Both persons seemed “comfortable in their skin”. They were not trying to be anything. They were just being. They seemed to be to be comfortable with the world around them and their place in it. This allowed them to be “authentic”. Authenticity suggest the quality of being real, true to one’s own personality, spirit or character. Therefore, I begin by challenging you (as I challenge myself) to be “real” in all things. Do not fake anything. It will eventually become apparent and influence people’s willingness to trust what you say or do coming forward. This may initial appear to contradict my suggestions in previous blogs to act from the knowledge that everything matters and everything speaks, to be always present in the moment, and to always act consciously in a manner that enhances your leadership presence.
I believe that the two points are complimentary. You can be wholly authentic and still be very much aware of how you are being perceived. It is not inauthentic for you to shape how you are being and how you are perceived in the moment. The commitment to being “leader-like” in what you say and do is a forethought. In the moment, you are just ensuring you evidence certain desired qualities and characteristics in what you say and do. This is an internal conversation. For example, maybe you are comfortable using profanity in some situations. You are not being inauthentic is you purposefully avoid using it in particular situations. If you are about to utter a profanity, see that it does not fit in the context of the moment and you refrain, you are building your leader-like muscle.
Authenticity is more about truthfulness. Saying what needs to be said, when you need to say it (avoiding withholds). Being comfortable with what needs to be said and in how you say it does not mean saying the same thing in the same way to every person. I often shape the same message differently for different people. This allows me to be most “real” with each person. If authenticity is about being “comfortable in one’s own skin”, with the world and one’s place in it, then one must see that the world is different depending upon where one stands or who one is standing before. We are most authentic when we adapt to be comfortable in the world before us.
Here, I am reminded of an acquaintance who is quite vocal in his assertion that he is “completely honest with everyone”. As he lays his truth on people, he declares proudly, “A spade is a spade. I call them as I see them and let the chips fall where they may.” What amazes me is that he does not see that people cringe at his approach; he has a very dark aura. His honesty can be brutal and without empathy. He does not seem at all authentic, but rather appears uncomfortable and self-serving.
There is a direct correlation between aura and empathy. In the case of my meeting with the Aga Khan, I never found out much about him because he wanted to talk about my new hospital and the issues we were facing. He wanted to talk about how the poor children of Bangladesh would obtain quality education. His comfort was in his choice of conversation. I was attracted to him because I saw and felt his empathy for others and me. The Beach Bum was popular because he showed real interest in those who joined him on the beach. We were there to enjoy life and he opened avenues to us. Build your Leader aura by strengthening your empathy. You do this in two ways: one, really think about the feelings of others, and, two, show people that they matter to you.
Whom do you care for and about? Aura has a discrete component of “caring”. Put this to the test. The next time you meet someone ask yourself the question, “Who do they care about?” You will have a preliminary, if not correct, answer. You will have an immediate sense of whether that persons’ “caring focus” is inward or outward. It will influence your initial perception of them. You will be feeling a component of their aura. Incidentally, if you are committed to being a leader and working in that direction, you will be paying positive attention to people and your “caring focus” will be perceived increasingly as outward.
Aura exudes from respect. People will know immediately if you truly respect them. They will know this by how respectful you are with them. The Aga Khan greeted me before I greeted him. I could feel his respect for me in his handshake. When I saw the Bum for the first time every day on the beach, I could feel his respect, his value of me, in his greeting. Granted respect was an intrinsic element of both auras.
If you want to build an aura, become an aura analyzer. Pay attention to how people make you feel when you cross their path. Whether they make you feel good or they make you feel bad, ask yourself, “why?” Just thinking about this will have an impact on you. You cannot then help, thereafter, but always think about how you are affecting people. “Feel” for things like authenticity, caring, respect, and trust. These considerations are exercise for building your own leader aura.