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How to Deal With That Missing X Factor in Your Leadership

If you’ve ever heard a person described as having the “X factor,” you know it’s an attempt to describe something un-namable. Some call it charisma, while others assemble a list of qualities because a single word doesn’t suffice. 

When I first heard about “affective presence,” I couldn’t help but think about X factor. Affective presence is a fancy term for someone’s ability to consistently bring out the same emotions in everyone they encounter. It’s the capacity to unknowingly influence without effort. I’ve been a student of positive influence since I began working on my book so I wanted to learn more.

Two organizational behavior scientists, Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein, designed a study to learn more about this recurring influence on others’ moods. The significant conclusion of the study was that without trying, each person unconsciously evokes an emotion that affects everyone in the same way. Certain emotions—particularly discouragement, frustration and stress—are “influenced as much by who you are interacting with as by who you are,” Eisenkraft says. 

Real leadership is defined by the moments when you’re not winning.

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The “so what” here is that leaders who have a positive affective presence regularly provide intangible yet critical support for their people. Many regard this continuity and stability as one of the most—if not the most— important qualities in a leader. Affective presence shouldn’t be confused with a leader’s conscious attempt to motivate others. Instead, it is your unconscious effect on others—an effect that everyone consistently experiences.

That effect is important because every day at the office isn’t a win and some years, there are more valleys than peaks. Real leadership is defined by the moments when you’re not winning. Your ability to rebound is essential because your team reacts to your reaction. How you decide to show up when the chips are down is what your team will remember and how they build resilience.

According to Eisenkraft and Elfenbein, how you make others feel is an unconscious vibe—not something you can change. So what does that mean for the majority of leaders who don’t naturally elicit followership in people around them? Or don’t possess the elusive X factor? They have to focus on what they can control. Namely, actions can speak for you when your affective presence may not.

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Consider the following:

  • the cultural decisions you make about the environment in which people work,
  • what is communicated in the spirit of transparency rather than personal agenda,
  • how you actively listen to the people and input around you, and
  • the level to which you remove barriers so your people can succeed.

All of these leadership behaviors have the potential to show substantive and empathic leadership—a leadership style proven to be successful. In other words, let your actions speak louder than your affective presence.


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