5 Principles of Leadership Presence

“Thunderbirds Check…. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six”

“Lets Run’em Up…”

“Smoke On – Ready…. Now”

“Smoke Off – Ready… Now”

“Release Brakes – Ready…. Now”

With these simple commands, Thunderbird 1 initiates the roar of afterburners which thrust the Air Force Thunderbird demonstration team skyward. With high-G, high-speed, split-second accuracy and precision, the men and women of the USAF Thunderbirds leave spectators spellbound evertime. “The maneuvers flown demonstrate the awesome capabilities and skills that all fighter pilots must possess. From the loops and rolls to the formation flying and high-speed passes – these are just a small example of what is required of every combat aviator.”

The aerial maneuvers and precision coordination of the show is rehearsed hundreds of times before being viewed by millions of spectators each year. Often overlooked is the abundance of other skills which must be refined and deliberately developed in each and every team member before ‘going on the road.’ In addition to the flight demonstration on a show weekend, the Thunderbird Team accomplishes school visits, media interviews and visits to local social organizations for discussions. It is in these smaller, more personal venues that the persona…the Thunderbird Presence…truly shines. These 5 principles of presence directly carry-over to the leadership world.

1. Look the Part

No, looks aren’t everything but appearance is a strong first impression. Be deliberate in yours. A leader is not always in a pristine suit, but the attire should match the situation. Fit is more crucial than expense. A perfectly tailored low-end suit demonstrates more attention to detail than a poorly-fit expensive one.  The same principle applies to grooming standards. If your appearance, demeanor and office are neat and tidy, it subconsciously informs everyone you expect the same from them. Look at the Thunderbirds. They are the definition of precision. And every thing about their appearance reveals this. Have you ever noticed that if one Thunderbird wears their sunglasses, all do? If one takes off their jacket, all do? Why? To demonstrate attention to detail and precision in every tiny detail, even when performed to a degree which most people do not consciously realize.

Grace under pressure confirms to everyone watching that you are in total control and have the ability and capability to be successful.

2. Exhibit Poise

It has been said many times, the group takes on the demeanor of the leader. For this reason Thunderbirds, and leaders alike, should always focus on their poise. Confident, not cocky. Grace under pressure confirms to everyone watching that you are in total control and have the ability and capability to be successful. If an interview question rattles a Thunderbird…if events shake a leader…then the audience/followers question their abilities.

3. Situational Focus

Every person you talk to should feel like the most important person in the room. Always give your undivided attention to the conversation at hand and to the person or persons with whom you are interacting. Realize the best conversationalist know you should talk 20% and listen 80%. Effective leaders follow this same equation.

4. Solid Intellect

Study, prepare and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” As the leader, you should be the most prepared individual in any room. But no one knows all. Never ‘wing’ an answer. Incorrect facts and verbal tap-dancing detract from your credibility and yield unrecoverable ‘sound-bites.’ As any professional performer understands, an incorrect answer or bad sound-bite never seems to go away.

5. Exude Passion

If you have ever watched the Thunderbird Team walk into a room, you understand passion. The six Demonstration Pilots probably just walked off the flight line and delivered an awe-inspiring, breathtaking performance. But when they walk in, everyone knows the best is yet to come. The individuals love their job, their Air Force, their country. And they are there to convince you of the same. They are genuinely passionate about what they have the opportunity to do every day. Passion must be genuine, it should never be faked. If you are passionate about your mission, your organization, your team…this will affect and infect those you lead.

Every person you talk to should feel like the most important person in the room.

These five simple principles help build a foundation in presence.  Your leadership presence is an interweaved result of your past experience, learned abilities and future capability. It is an innate quality which motivates people to follow you, to respect you. Realize that every person in a room has a presence…however small or large, positive or negative. Be as deliberate about developing your leadership presence as the Ambassadors in Blue…and you will leave just as lasting of a mark. What principles of leadership presence can you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below and keep the conversation going.


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Copyright: xavigm / 123RF Stock Photo

Chris R. Stricklin is a combat-proven leader, mentor and coach integrating the fields of dynamic followership, negotiations, leadership, positive change, public relations, public speaking and complex organizational change. His unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer which was subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation. He and his wife, Terri, have 4 children.

  • http://www.TheNakedNonprofit.com/ Laura Ryding-Becker

    Hi Chris –

    Great article. I think having grace under pressure and making each person feel like the only person in the room are keys to developing your leadership persona. Trust is so important to have in a leader, and I feel that these two principles really hit the nail on the head.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

  • AMS

    “confirms to everyone watching that you are in total control” – Let’s remember that “total control” is an illusion, and a bs one at that. You should definitely be in control of things like your own self, emotional outbursts, inappropriate behavior etc. But that’s pretty much where “total control” ends. The rest is managing the chaos that is life, you’re on a big huge wave, and you’ve got to learn how to surf, you can not control the wave but you can certainly figure out how to manage it to a degree, give and take, yield and bail, ride and thrive, and get up on your board again every time you fall. Don’t confuse “total control” over your Self, with everything there is around you in your environment. Control your self, embrace the chaos, ride the wave.

  • Gladstone

    Very good points from Chris.

    I would like to share my thoughts


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