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  • Jeff Davidson

Presence – What is it and how do I get it?

General George S. Patton Jr. was certainly a leader of presence. In a letter to his son in January of 1945 General Patton once stated that “Leadership…is the thing that wins battles. I have it – but I’ll be damned if I can define it.” The same is true in regards to defining leadership presence.

Leadership “Presence” is in fact made up of several different facets. Clearly, presence includes the physical presence of a leader and the ability to understand where to be physically present throughout the length and breadth of an organization. A leader’s composed presence can project the confidence and calm necessary to maintain order and discipline during crisis and chaos. A leader’s physical presence during adversity builds trust throughout an organization and facilitates the leader’s ability to empathize with those they lead.

But leader presence is much more than that. Presence is the ability of the leader to be “in the moment”. A leader with presence is prepared for the moment through both institutional (formal) training and individual (informal) preparation. A prepared leader is confident and exudes confidence to those they lead which will quickly spread through an entire organization.

Leaders with presence exhibit patience allowing them to be more cognizant in regards to a particular individual or organization’s disposition. Patient leaders are more prone to listen more than talk and listen to understand versus listen to respond enabling a leader to adapt to the situation as required increasing their connectivity and ability to influence those around them.

As a role model the leader with presence is professional both verbally and nonverbally which aids in establishing the standard and setting the tone within an organization.

A great example of a leadership presence is Major General William Rosecrans at the Battle of Stones River Dec 31, 1862 - Jan 2, 1863. Rosecrans prepared his Army by properly equipping, training and organizing the Army of the Cumberland. He patiently waited until the conditions were finally established for his assault on the Confederate Army of Tennessee garrisoned near Murfreesboro, commanded by General Braxton Bragg. The two Confederate Cavalry Raiders of Forrest and Morgan had deployed their forces outside the area of operations and the Army of Tennessee had dispatched an additional Division worth of Soldiers to Vicksburg to assist in the effort there. The conditions now favored a Union offensive.

However, the Army of the Cumberland would be caught completely off guard at Stones River. Rosecrans was able to prevent a complete rout on the first day of the battle by re-establishing a line of defense along his only route back to Nashville and safety. As he worked diligently to save his Army, Rosecrans was ubiquitous and tirelessly issued orders, reconstituting units best as he could. Sensing a critical point in the battle, Rosecrans with his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Garesche, rode forward to provide his physical presence at place known as the Round Forest. As the two officers moved forward Colonel Garesche would be decapitated by a Confederate cannon ball, his lifeless body remaining in the saddle for twenty more yards before falling to the ground. Nevertheless, Rosecrans continued to press forward to the critical point on the battlefield with the blood, brains and bones of his best friend and West Point Classmate covering his body. As Rosecrans neared the Brigade in contact with elements of LTG Leonidas Polk’s Corps, he calmly dismounted and by his presence and demeanor, instilled confidence in the Soldiers defending at this critical juncture of the battle.

Later that evening after suffering what was probably the worst day of his military career, Rosecrans called for a War Council and proposed the question to his gathered lieutenants, should the Army of the Cumberland stay and fight or retreat back to Nashville. Rosecrans patiently listened as the responses from his subordinate commanders ranged widely. After hearing their responses he went to inspect the battlefield himself and consider his strategy and reply to the commanders who awaited his return. Rosecrans rejoined his commanders and informed them of his decision - to stay and fight!

Rosecrans decision to stay and fight ultimately would lead to a Union Victory at Stones River. Abraham Lincoln would often refer to the Battle of Stones River as a great strategic victory stating in a letter to Rosecrans later that year, "I can never forget…you gave us a hard-earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over." The Army of Tennessee under Bragg would retreat first to Tullahoma and later to Chattanooga. The Army of Tennessee’s demoralizing defeat at Stones River deepened an rift in the leadership from which the command would never fully recover.

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