How To Cultivate Your Signature Leadership Presence

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When business powerhouse and humanitarian, Wendy Appelbaum speaks in her deep gravelly voice, people listen. When Thuli Madonsela walks into a room, people often rise to their feet and spontaneously applause. When Ferial Hafajee voices her criticism of the ruling party, they can’t resist lashing out in retaliation, so powerful are her words.

Ask any woman in South Africa about our most powerful female leaders, and these three names are likely to come up. What do they have in common? Nothing less than an authentic leadership presence that marks them out as someone we need to follow. They are uniquely themselves and universally appealing.

Authors and executive coaches Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins call this quality a ‘signature leadership presence’ – a unique presence that is confident, authentic and effective across a variety of situations and with diverse audiences. And in their book,Own The Room: Discover Your Signature Voice To Master Your Leadership, they explore why it is so important for leaders to cultivate this.

This is especially true for women leaders, who reportedly find it difficult to own a room – or a boardroom. Women in senior management positions are often in the minority and can feel isolated. Cultivating a signature leadership presence can be crucial to helping them break that isolation and ensuring an effective impact as a leader.

Liz de Wet, who convenes the Women in Leadership programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) says there are four elements women leaders need to consider as they craft their unique leadership signature.

1. Find out who you are

“If authenticity is the cornerstone of a signature presence, then developing self knowledge and self mastery is the place to start. This is also the key to developing confidence and integrity, the ability to stand up for your own views and beliefs, even when challenged in difficult scenarios,” says de Wet.

Wendy Appelbaum’s straight-talking and uncompromising stance when it comes to her values and integrity exemplifies this. She is a perfectionist, driven to succeed at whatever she takes on – whether it be producing an award winning Chenin Blanc (the first wine ever to get five stars in South Africa’s leading wine guide, John Platter) or playing golf, for which she obtained provincial colours. “What you see is what you get. (Wendy) has a very transparent management style. She tells you things straight,” says De Morgenzon tasting room manager Diana Renke in an interview. “She leads with integrity.”

Another South African woman leader who scores high on authenticity is Wendy Luhabe. Recently voted as one of the 50 most influential women in the world, mentor, entrepreneur and businesswoman, Luhabe is best-known as one of the founders of the Women Investment Portfolio Holdings, which listed on the JSE in 1999, and in 2010 she started one of 10 women-owned private equity firms in the world.

Luhabe is a vocal advocate for women’s rights and is part of a number of organisations that promote and support the economic empowerment of women. She is confident and courageous and says she is not afraid of taking risks and failing. She admits to being selective about what she undertakes, to ensure that she can give 100% to whatever she commits to. She tells The Legacy Project that the best advice she ever received is “to be myself because that’s the only way I can be authentic and the best”.

2. Stand up for what you believe in

Being true to yourself and your convictions can sometimes come at a cost. For an example of this, de Wet says we need to look no further than Thuli Madonsela’s unflinchingly professional stance when taking on President Jacob Zuma in her Nkandla report of 2014. Throughout the process, she refused to be drawn into any unprofessional mudslinging in the media, sticking to the facts and the terms of her office.

Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, also exemplifies courage in leadership. Outspoken when it comes to criticising injustice – wherever it is found, Haffajee has come under fire from the ruling party in recent months after she criticised President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address in a speech made at the Cape Town Press Club earlier this year. She applied pressure to the ruling party to such a point that they released a press release slamming her views.

Haffajee’s voice is especially strong when it comes to human rights. She does not see herself as blazing a trail for female journalists or women in senior management positions in the media, although this is unquestioningly what she does in the male-dominated world of journalism. She sees herself as a leader who happens to be a woman, not the other way around. In so doing, she models the qualities of bravery, authenticity and integrity that are the hallmarks of signature leadership presence.

3. Be willing to put in the work

De Wet says that the good news is that we can all develop these qualities. In their book, Su and Wilkins debunk some of the popular myths about leadership presence. These include that “you are who you are” and that presence is something you either have or don’t have. Su and Wilkins say this is one of the most pernicious myths about leadership and completely untrue. Leaders willing to work on themselves can definitely build a leadership presence, they say. Other myths about leadership presence are that there is one style that fits all and that once you have a leadership presence, you can’t change or tweak it.

“The take-home message is that anyone can develop a leadership presence if they are willing to honestly examine who they are, analysing both personal weaknesses and strengths and looking at what they bring to their job and how they can make a difference that is authentic to them and resonates with others,” she says.

4. Beware of imitation

Tempting as it might be to emulate the women leaders we admire, when developing a signature leadership presence, De Wet says the idea is not to try and copy their leadership style. “It is important for leaders who want to develop a unique leadership presence to find a style that rings true for them,” she cautions.

Considering that a lack of confidence is one of the biggest factors believed to hold women back in putting themselves forward and achieving more in their careers, developing a signature leadership presence for women executives has the added benefit of building confidence, she says.

Executive development, coaching or mentoring and forming supportive communities can all be helpful in forging a signature leadership presence. As leadership expert, Dr Kathy Kramer puts it, “Instead of focusing on your shortcomings, it is about growing your awareness of who you are when you are leading effectively. Knowing the particular positive qualities that underscore your leadership effectiveness is what allows them to shine through in all that you do.”


Kumeshnee West: Kumeshnee West is the director of Executive Education at the University of Cape



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