Present to the Present

In the entertainment world, great directors tell a story in each scene based on a vision.

As Franz Pagot the famous cinematographer said once “If a director explains every movement and expression he has either chosen a bad actor or he is not a director, but a choreographer, even though even that is debatable.”

“If, as a director, you cast someone to follow your instructions to the letter, then you will never become a great director. If you choose someone who will take that role and take it to another level, times better than you can envisage, surprising you with suggestions, building layers upon layers of emotions and creating amazing work on the character, all you’ll have to do is to say ‘action’, and enjoy your fame eventually.

You might say: isn’t the job of a director to ‘direct’ actors? Wrong, a director’s job is to get performances, telling a story, in the most beautiful and powerful way, and choosing the talent that will make that possible, in front and behind the camera”1

Of course business leaders do precisely the same. There is a master script called vision, or mission, or values, or strategy etc. The leader is the director and the actors are the performers that are executing the business strategy and vision. However, what is implicit in directing a movie or play and different from the way many business leaders approach their work is the leader’s ability to access his or her whole self in the moment in order to be completely present to others and experience thoughts and emotions as the character would in a story.  Often leaders are only “in their heads” and are comparing the performance to a predetermined set of cognitive expectations and instructions or the plan for the future.  Additionally, by not being present to the emotional and social field they miss the signals and cues necessary to inspire and motivate their team to reach the highest levels of performance.

In working with teams, one of the typical norms that is suggested by the group is “silence means acceptance.” Recently I was invited to work with a senior team and when this norm was suggested the leader spoke up and said, “I know this is a typical norm, but I feel there are dynamics in this team that will result in valid points being missed or not offered.” Once he explained his rationale there was general agreement that this norm should not be adopted by the team. He explained that the pace on the team is very quick and it is set by the more extroverted members who generally were on the commercial side of the business. This meant that those who needed to take a bit longer to process the thought and also attach it to the culture and human fabric of the organization were slower to step in. In addition, he explained that the team still was not where it needed to be on trust, and his fear was that the norm would cover up the trust issue rather than addressing it in real time. Clearly he was in the moment and able to intervene in a timely and effective manner.


There is another aspect of the ability to detach and pay attention to the present. I was watching my son play soccer last weekend. It was his final game playing with a team that had won only one other game. Naturally, when he scored a goal and his team won he was elated. I asked him to describe to me the joy of landing that perfect kick in the upper right hand corner of the net. In his own 9 year old way he showed his excitement through his big smile, his eyes, and said it was great. Then I asked him how it would feel if he had made the shot and his team had lost. His body language, smile, and posture changed. It would not be the same, he said. It became immediately clear that my question had taken him out of feeling the pure joy of hitting a perfect shot in favor of a predetermined expectation (winning) and a disappointing outcome (losing). I took him back to describing the joy of the kick, how it felt to hit the ball, how he had put a spin on the ball to curve towards the upper right cross bar, the reaction of the goalie and his teammates, and how he could have never hit that shot a year ago or even a few months ago. I asked him my question again but this time he seemed less disappointed about the loss. He now thinks that hitting a great shot has its own meaning and existence. That he can learn from paying attention to what is working and not in his play and to be more aware of the other players on his team and their strengths and weaknesses.

In our culture there is an inordinate amount of attention given to planning and measuring outcomes. There are very few institutionalized processes or practices that encourage reflecting on what is happening now, how we can learn from the present, and ideate in the moment to reinvent and improve on our assumptions.

Many leaders have lost touch with their childlike joy of being with and learning in the present – finally giving that great presentation with comfort and control; being on a team where people care and support one another; developing a business or project one piece at a time and creating an idea that changes the plans and the anticipated outcome in favor of a bigger win. These seminal experiences deserve their own space for reflection, celebration, and learning. Equally, our less than stellar performances are just as important to be with and learn from. We are all imperfect beings and our evolutionary brains and bodies are programmed for learning through experience. It is only through repeated experimentation that great leaders find their voices, destiny, and presence. It means learning and being in the moment and sensing what is working and what is not. Who are we influencing or not. How others are reacting to our presence. What we heard and how accurate it was. Etc.

Here are important innovations that are directly related to the innovator being present to the present. Gaining powerful insights for product, service, and channel by being present to the present

  • The rolling suitcase
  • Uber
  • Virgin Atlantic airline
  • Lending Tree mortgage services
  • Chobani yogurt
  • Viagra for ED versus its original use for heart dysfunction
  • Mothers against drunk driving (MADD)
  • Ebay
  • “Me Too” movement

Millions of people share an experience. Such as a plane being cancelled and being stranded. However, some like Richard Branson, are present to the present. During a trip to Puerto Rico, Branson’s flight was cancelled, so he decided to charter his own plane the rest of the way and offer a ride to the rest of the stranded passengers for a small fee in order to cover the cost. Based on this experience, he sensed a need in the market place and started Virgin airlines.

  1. Accessed from: May 30, 3019.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. When was the last time you had an “aha” moment by being present to the present?
  2. Have you experienced the joy and the growth that a moment can provide independent of any other conditions or thoughts? For example, “oh my child looks so adorable and gives me so much joy” without “and oh my god she will soon be a teenager and won’t give me hugs like this anymore?”
  3. What are you learning about yourself through the window of being present or not being present?






About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

2 Responses to Present to the Present

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