Developing presence and confidence in leadership

What do David Byrne, David Bowie and Beyoncé, all have in common? They’ve all used a persona to help them step into the energy of performing and give them confidence.

In this week’s design leadership coaching reflections I talk about presence and stepping into the leadership role without becoming self-inflated and arrogant.



[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: What do David Byrne, David Bowie and Beyoncé, all have in common? They’ve all used a persona to help them step into the energy of performing and give them confidence.

My name is Andy Polaine. And every week I spend my days coaching design leaders. And in these videos, I reflect upon the common themes and questions that come up in the week. And this week, I want to talk about presence and stepping into the leadership role without becoming self-inflated and arrogant.


[00:00:24] Andy Polaine: So presence is one of those things that sometimes talked about as executive presence, which I find a little bit, 🤮. I really think it’s not about pretending to be entirely someone you are not, and this is a common misconception, I think. And it can lead you to become sort of overinflated and full of hubris and become very fake, like Steve Ballmer’s famous "developers, developers, developers" monkeying about onstage. And ironically, when you do that, you actually get more imposter syndrome because you’re scared you’re going to be found out if you’re trying to be something that you’re completely not and holding that tension can often lead to leaders acting out in awful ways where they become very demanding or arrogant or aggressive.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

On Stage

[00:01:05] Andy Polaine: So, what I’m talking about is that it’s, it’s kind of a gig you’re sort of on stage. This is important because when you’re in that role and either you’re in a leadership role or giving a speech, you are teaching, that’s one of the things I’ve really learned from teaching quite a lot and also from facilitation of workshops, people are expecting you to take on that role. And that’s what I mean by holding the projection and when you constantly undermine that, If you’ve ever seen a teacher who has been very nervous and then the class runs amok or if you ever seen someone who’s facilitating a workshop and they just can’t control the room and manage the room. You’ll see that going on. And actually people really appreciate the fact that you do take on that role.

Personas - David Byrne

[00:01:43] Andy Polaine: So David Byrne is an example I often use because in the Stop Making Sense tour he famously had this really big suit. It was kind of normal business suit, but it was made huge because a friend of his said to him, "Oh it’s like Kabuki theater, Japanese Kabuki theater. They have this big sort of boxy silhouettes of costumes. When you’re on stage, everything needs to be bigger." And he’s famously also neurodivergent and you can see that it gives him this way to sort of unmask himself when he’s onstage. And if you look online, you’ll find videos of him practicing in the suit and finding funny ways he can move about in it.

Personas - David Bowie

[00:02:16] Andy Polaine: When David Bowie died, there were loads of documentaries about him, and there was a bit in it where he was talking about Ziggy Stardust, his famous persona. And one of the things you could really see that he was sort of struggling to perform actually. He’d often said he likes making music, but he didn’t really like performing and being on stage. And you can see there’s a sort of lack of confidence in him and an awkwardness. And then when he developed the alter ego of Ziggy Stardust, you can see when he’s on stage, he’s just completely different. He’s got a whole load of confidence and difference about him. And he talks about this and how it enabled him to be something he’s not, enabled him to get onto stage.

Personas - Beyoncé

And Beyoncé’s alter ego is called Sasha fierce and she said, " It’s the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken and more glamorous side that comes out when I’m working and when I’m on stage."

[00:03:02] Andy Polaine: Tina Turner is another one famously introverted, very quiet and shy, but onstage is obviously Tina Turner, as we all might think of her.

Wear a costume

[00:03:09] Andy Polaine: My own little version of this was a very gaudy, bright shirt from Desigual that I used to wear when I was giving keynotes on stage, I was always used to wear it when I was doing facilitation. Unfortunately, the shirt has now worn out. That’s why I’m talking about it in the past tense, but I will try and usually feel like I’m dressing up in some way to be in that role. I used to call it my "look at me!" shirt because it would draw people’s attention to it. It never failed to get some tweets and it was for me, a kind of costume that I was putting on. And I knew, okay, I will put on my costume and I’m going on stage and this is a kind of performance. Obviously I’m just giving a keynote or facilitating, but it put me in a slightly different frame of mind.

I know people who wear a special pair of shoes or even underwear to give them that confidence that this is a slightly different persona they’re taking on. If you’ve ever worn fancy dress, if the men amongst you’ve ever worn black tie and done the James Bond move in front of the mirror, you might’ve experienced how it can give you more confidence in social interactions.

But it is a costume and it’s important that you learn that you put it on and you take it off again. It’s a magnified version of you, but it’s still part of you. It helps give yourself permission to be a, maybe a bigger or more charismatic version of you, but after a while, you can switch it on and off without the props.

Don’t lose yourself

[00:04:23] Andy Polaine: It’s important you don’t lose yourself in it and think you are that person. The quote from Beyonce, wasn’t, I’m a completely different person. It was, this is a side of myself, when I’m on stage and there’s a different side of myself when I’m not on stage.

My suggestion for you is to try it out. If you feel like you lack a little bit of confidence or you don’t feel like you have presence when you’re talking to some people where you need to have that. Try it out. Try just wearing something a little bit different.

If you’re working from home, or especially if you’re working from home, and you have an important presentation. If you have a standing desk, try standing up to present your whole body is very different. I’m sitting right now, but, and I’m a bit like this. And when I stand up, it’s a very different posture. You’ve got more oxygen coming to your lungs, more blood flow and so forth. But more to the point it signals to your body. Oh, I’m on stage and I’m performing at the moment. So just try it out, experiment, see what works for you.


[00:05:16] Andy Polaine: I hope that’s useful. If you would like to check out my coaching practice it’s at and I’ll put the link below. If you have got any tips about how you give yourself a confidence and presence boost, please post a comment below. I would love to hear them.

Thanks very much and I will see you again soon.

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