Command Presence

It's not only what you say, but how you say it that makes a strong leader.

Watching the retrospective coverage of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina that marked the one-year anniversary of the disaster, it was striking to observe the number of leaders who cried publicly.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco did. So did New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. And New Orleans Police Chief Edwin Compass. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard cried as well. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said President Bush cried when they met up shortly after the storm.

The tears reflected the overwhelming nature of the disaster-and the difficulty leaders had trying to respond to it. Some also showed their anger and frustration by shouting, pouting or cursing.

It was on that wave of emotion that Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the military Joint Task Force Katrina, came into New Orleans to assume control of the rescue-and-recovery operations.

He did not cry, at least publicly. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Nagin described the soldier as "one John Wayne dude." Shortly after Honore got to town, he was famously seen on camera yelling at military and law enforcement personnel to stop pointing their weapons because he didn't want New Orleanians to feel like they were being policed rather than helped. "Hey! Weapons down!" Honore shouted as he walked through an intersection. "Weapons down! Weapons down, damn it! Put your weapons down!"

"Command presence," in military and law enforcement circles, describes the physical way in which leaders lead: their body movements, tone of voice, the way they stand, how they make eye contact. At a pivotal moment during the Katrina recovery efforts, Honore's command presence helped restore a sense of control in New Orleans. The way he walked, the way he carried himself, the way he projected his voice, even the fact that he frequently smoked cigars-all those elements of his command presence conveyed a leadership message. All that would have been meaningless if he had failed to deliver a strong military response. But it was strong, so his command presence was an appropriate communicator of the actions he was taking.

In the military, command presence is part of the training. As a simple example, military officers are taught how to use their voices to give commands, learning which volume, pitch and tone to use for various purposes. In the civilian world, however, such physical training often is overlooked. Civilian managers have to teach themselves such skills or seek out such training.

In a world where management often is done via computer, managers can't forget that their physical presence matters. Every leader isn't a "John Wayne dude," but everyone communicates not only with words, but also with the way they deliver those words. In a 2002 article in Military Review, Honore pointed out that interpersonal skills are a key component of command. "Leadership begins with influencing people," he wrote. And to develop the ability to influence people, leaders must start by acting the way they want others to see them.

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