Too many leaders get caught up frantically doing, while being present with those they are leading is far more important.

Having worked in crisis and disaster areas across the globe – including Indonesia following the Bali Bombings, Thailand in the aftermath of the South East Asian tsunami, Saudi Arabia post the deadly floods in Jeddah, and Japan following the tsunami of 2011 – I have witnessed the actions of individual leaders with and without positional authority.

True leaders are not defined by the positions they hold, but their actions and reactions. This applies in times of crisis, and in instances of enormous opportunity.

4 key actions that define a leader

In my experience, there are four key actions that define a leader, particularly in times of great pressure:

1. Acting with speed

Opportunities to lead are often afforded to those who move first – those who take decisive action and put themselves forward. If you wait until you have all of the answers to all of the questions prior to taking action, someone will always beat you to it. You may not need to be the best, but acting swiftly and being the first will give you a good chance of attaining a position of authority.

2. Leading with sensitivity

If we are not facing change we are not growing. Change upsets people and – converse to how it might feel – that’s a good thing. However, it’s not the change itself but how we respond to it, which is important. If we understand that most people are resistant to change yet change is necessary for growth, it becomes evident that we need to address any resistance prior to implementing change. Anticipating the points of resistance and dealing with them prior to commencing the change program enables a smoother transition.

3. Having a structure

You can’t lead an effective organisation without structure – it’s necessary for developing consistency in results and performance. However, with too much structure you risk taking away the decision making ability of your leaders and dampening creativity, which results in the development of managers, not leaders. The key is having a loose structure that allows for individual growth.

4. Leading with simplicity

This follows on from the previous point – your leaders need to make confident decisions, without too much ambivalence or deliberation. If they make a decision with integrity and good intent and get it wrong they will be forgiven. If they fail to make a decision for fear of making the wrong decision, they won’t be forgiven.

Central to these four key points is the importance of the presence of leaders. Executive presence exists on three levels; leadership of the brand you represent, leadership of your team, and leadership of yourself.

If your team, clients or customers don’t see you often enough they will think two things. The first is that you don’t care and the second is that you don’t understand the challenges they are facing.  Leaders shouldn’t underestimate the value of their presence when it comes to leading.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the east coast of Japan in 2011, I spent a lot of time with a man by the name of Mr. Sato, who was the community leader of a small seaside village that was destroyed. In his community lives were lost, homes were obliterated and commerce came to a grinding halt. A number of buildings constructed high above the water level – including the community hall and Mr. Sato’s personal home – survived the destruction, while those lower down didn’t.

Rather than partake in his evening meal with his family each night, Mr. Sato would make the journey to the community hall and share dinner with the members of his community who had lost their homes. Mr. Sato’s ongoing presence conveyed to the community that he sympathised with their loss and that he cared. After the meal Mr. Sato would move between the group, sitting on the floor next to members of his community and listening to their needs and tales of loss. This small act demonstrated his commitment to the community.

Mr. Sato’s actions through this devastating time highlight the importance of presence in leadership. Whether it be leading a community through crisis, or a team through corporate change, simply being present demonstrates unity and compassion.