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July 18, 2022

The Thriving Lawyer: Executive Presence or Shadow Presence? You Choose

Anne E. Collier
We all have a shadow presence. And, we all have the capacity to choose executive presence.

We all have a shadow presence. And, we all have the capacity to choose executive presence.

iStock / Morsa Images

People with executive presence attract opportunities by inspiring trust, confidence and optimism. They embody gravitas, meaning they are decisive, exhibit poise under pressure and project a strong sense of self. Those with executive presence have excellent communication skills, including the ability to read the audience or situation. They are assertive, well-spoken and organized when expressing themselves. Their appearance is polished and pulled together. People with executive presence are cool, calm, collected and seem in command of everything, especially their emotions.

Then there is shadow presence. Shadow presence is our emotional, reactive side embedded in the subconscious. It is triggered by stress and fueled by negative emotions such as fear, anger and jealousy. People who frequently display shadow presence are hard to work with and be around because colleagues and clients must devote precious time to mitigating the distraction and deleterious effects of their shadow presence.

If you are wondering whether you have a shadow presence, the answer is “yes.” We all do. If you are wondering if there is anything you can do to reduce its manifestation, the answer is also “yes.” We all can.

If you are reading this column, you most likely are interested in improving your executive presence and ensuring that your shadow presence doesn’t rob you of success. Thankfully, the work of Dr. William Sparks provides a road map for doing just that. He developed the Actualized Leader Framework, which incorporates David McClelland’s three motive drivers—affiliation, power and achievement—and their corresponding fears.

The motive affiliation—being affiliated or being in a relationship with others—can give rise to fear of rejection, which shows up as taking things personally, conflict avoidance and lack of candor. Likewise, the motive power—the capacity and control necessary to drive results—can lead to fear of betrayal, which is the fear of being undermined or that the desired result will not occur. Fear of betrayal often shows up as impatience, ignoring, and even dominating or bullying behaviors. Finally, the motive achievement—winning through technical expertise—can lead to fear of failure, which is rooted in scarcity and often shows up as catastrophizing, criticism, paralysis and pessimism. Any situation in which success is ambiguously defined or rigorous precision is required can be triggering.

Now consider the implications of the framework’s “paradoxical intent,” which is based on Viktor Frankl’s work. Paradoxical intent is the premise that if fear drives your behavior, your actions, paradoxically, will lead to the very outcomes that you desperately seek to avoid. Fear-driven thinking and actions are also the root cause of shadow presence. The crux of the problem is that the same fear that triggers shadow thinking and drives shadow actions also impairs the person’s ability to see that his, her or their actions are paradoxically counterproductive. Until we build our capacity to recognize when fear drives us, we are under the effect of fear. Let’s build that capacity and our executive presence. Here’s how.

7 steps to build your capacity to choose executive presence

Following these seven steps will help you to recognize and reduce your shadow presence.

  1. .Determine your primary fear. You can’t avoid shadow presence if you can’t see it. Take Dr. Sparks’ short-form leadership assessment at for your primary motive driver and a snapshot of how fear can drive your thinking and behavior, causing shadow presence. Without this picture, you may lack the capacity to choose executive presence.
  2. Identify which situations trigger your shadow presence. Consider a time when you weren’t yourself because you overreacted, got angry or upset, or lost your confidence. What happened? Why were you not yourself? Was it fear of rejection, fear of betrayal, fear of failure or a combination?
  3. Make the connection. Now that you’ve identified your primary fear and the situations that trigger your shadow presence, consider whether it was the fear identified as your primary by the assessment, one of the other two, or a combination of any of the three fears that was driving you. Now consider whether your actions achieved the intended result or paradoxically caused the outcomes you sought to avoid.
  4. Envision your executive presence. With your shadow presence distinguished and better understood, consider how you would have preferred to have handled the situation. What would have been more in line with your vision of your own executive presence? If you are stumped, think of someone you respect and even aspire to emulate, and incorporate elements of that person’s presence into your vision. You’ll still be your authentic self; you’ll just be less driven by fear.
  5. Strategize to avoid triggers. Whether it’s taking steps to better prepare, initiating difficult conversations or something else, there are likely concrete strategies that you can take to avoid triggering and to mitigate the effect of your fears. If the action is one that you are avoiding, then it is likely the action you need to take.
  6. Evaluate your thinking. The whammy of paradoxical intent is that when you are under its effect—wildly trying to avoid disaster—your capacity to see your shadow presence is greatly diminished. Be objective about your thinking. Don’t avoid acknowledging your shadow presence. Become familiar with the triggering situations and the look and feel of your shadow presence so you can recognize it. Then choose executive presence.
  7. Repeat the process. This isn’t a one and done process. Recognizing your fears and shadow presence will improve your access to your executive presence and the resultant successes. Repeat the process any time you get that sinking feeling that you are not as you want to be.

We all have a shadow presence. And, we all have the capacity to choose executive presence. Be kind to yourself. This isn’t easy, but it will get easier. Embrace improving your executive presence as you would take on any other challenge: with grit, gusto and determination. You’ve got this.

Anne E. Collier

CEO, Arudia

Anne E. Collier, MPP, JD, Professional Certified Coach, is the CEO of Arudia, a firm dedicated to improving culture, collaboration and communication. She is an expert leadership coach steadfast in her commitment to excellence and her clients’ goals. She coaches and delivers programming designed to support individuals, teams and organizations in amplifying their accomplishments. With confidence, intentionality and resilience, individuals and organizations alike manifest the extraordinary as they actualize greater financial stability and outcomes. [email protected]

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