Creative Leadership Means Being Present

We need leaders that are able to change the future. Creative leaders. The paradox with these leaders is that those that seem to be best at shaping the future are all firmly rooted in the now. These leaders really know how to connect to what is happening in the present, and can feel and use how it affects them on a deeper personal level. They are not just reacting on impulses; they are giving true answers to themselves and to the people around them, continuously. This ability goes by many names, call it being in the here and now, call it Mindfulness, Connected or Aligned. We prefer to simply call it Presence.

The ability for being present is not something mystic. Most everyone recognizes it and has experienced it in themselves and others at some time or another. However, it is not always easy to talk about, precisely because it involves more than our cognitive and verbal abilities. It is also a crucial aspect of creative leadership.

THNK encourages its future leaders to be as present as they can be. A nice example of how leadership can unfold while being present is in the journey of one of our participants whom we’ll call Ed. Ed was in charge of running the European businesses at a multinational, and was on his way to an even more global position. During his coaching, the topic of Passion and Purpose arose, as it is one of the foundations of Creative Leadership. Passion? Yes, that was something he could immediately recognize in himself. But purpose didn’t ring a bell and it shocked him quite a bit. “Am I without a purpose, then? Is my passion the same as my purpose? Where can I find my purpose?” These questions occupied him for weeks. His coach invited him to not only share his thoughts, but his feelings at that moment and how significant they were for him. By doing that, Ed stepped into the here and now. Acknowledging how he really felt. Feeling his energy and his body, he started to be more present. Things began quickly changing for Ed.

When I am anxious it is because i am living in the future. When I am depressed it is because i am living in the past. – Author unknown

Once Ed managed to step outside of his beliefs and rules and not be anxious about the future that the company had in mind for him, he reconnected with himself. He started to see the significance of his tiredness and to see where he was not leading fully from within himself but from a place of fear and obligation. Ed went to work to connect his passion to his purpose. It was as if a magical button was pushed. Within a couple of weeks, Ed changed his role completely, taking full leadership of an important change operation. He started practicing presence as part of creative leadership. His feelings of tiredness vanished and he experienced a burst of energy. Talking to Ed now, he feels connected to himself, his passion and purpose. His new team recognizes this, and many major changes are implemented in flow.

So what is presence?

Presence means being in and holding a centered position, with open access to both mind and body. It means being open to and in touch with your own authentic feelings, as well as those of others. Presence is about having Body and Mind at one’s full disposal: thinking and feeling at the same time, and from there making aware choices in the current reality.

Presence is a state and the way people experience it can vary from person to person. One way is by describing it as energy. Presence feels energizing and energetic. It is a nice blend of different energies within a person, one that could be described as a ‘being energy’ combined with a ‘thinking ‘and ‘doing’ energy. It can be perceived both internally and externally. Internally, presence makes us feel passionate about what we are doing and to which we feel a strong purpose. We are in touch with and in charge of our limiting beliefs and thoughts. Externally, presence makes us connect to others, really listening to what is on the table, giving answers instead of reactions, showing body language and tone of voice that are congruent with the situation and the way we feel.

Why is presence important in creative leadership?

Passion and purpose

Probably the mother of presence is how you act using passion and purpose. Knowing that your actions fit with who you are and with your purpose. Those creative leaders that have found their passion and purpose are on a mission, and enjoy the ride in the meantime. They take leadership of themselves and of their wellbeing, both in terms of emotions and their physical being. This leadership aspect has a strengthening effect on all the other important creative leadership competencies.

Explorative mindset

Creative leadership is helped immensely if you can spot trends where others do not see them. This happens when you can purposefully shift pre-conceived paradigms and see things from an opposing perspective. At the core of this ability is being able to really see and to see what might be blocking your view. Creative leaders that include presence in their skill set will be stronger at building slow hunches from complex & multi-layered information and stimuli. They will also be open for serendipitous moments happen.

Envisioning a better future

A future vision is born as an answer to the now. That means really acknowledging what’s at stake, and why as a leader you feel passion and purpose to change it. Creative leadership that is present not only knows how to focus the logical mind more skillfully, but also knows how to make the best use of their intuition. They have enough space and patience to let new insights and visions pop-up. And when communicating that vision, presence means being in touch with oneself and the audience. Tapping in to what at a deepest level is valuable. A real connection with the individual self will translate into real connection with the audience. Creative leaders know how to take the stage without hesitation. They know their story, can bring in their vulnerability and radiate a sparkle that will not only move people, but will also bring them in to action.

Orchestrating creative teams

Creative leadership of teams starts with attracting the right talent. Leaders with a strong sense of presence often attract people for reasons beyond the rationale, by connecting to the passion and purpose of others. Pushing and pulling each team helps them perform presence, too. Creative leaders who are able to be fully present need not live at the whim of their emotions, and will instead be able to register what is happening internally and externally and answer from choice instead of just react. They will thus make real connections, and communicate with congruence in tone of voice and body language. Creative leaders will work with what is presented in the now, and empower others by building on their energy and strengths.

Driving breakthrough change

When the going gets tough and uncertainty and ambiguity unfold, leaders who stay centered will have more resources at their disposal. Leaders that go into a tunnel vision will suffer from pressure and trigger a fear of failure. Presence will keep you in touch with the best parts of you, and with the sense of resilience and creativity necessary to get through the toughest moments. It will also keep you open to the best parts outside of you, the opportunities that may be emerging or the good advice that is hard to hear. Presence can function as the airbag when things crash, helping creative leaders find the resilience and perspective to deal with harsh realities. At the same time, it can be a source when creative leadership needs to be energetic and build up for actions and acceleration.

Can you learn presence?

Yes, you can. We all can be present, if we want. It requires time, hard work and self-discovery. It will be experiential learning, but it will eventually fall into place. You will begin to differentiate between feeling truly present and not. There is no quick fix: presence is not a set of behaviors you can adopt or fake. Creative leadership is about finding what works in your given situation, and what works to enhance individual presence.

Becoming more present can be as simple as going for a walk outside and paying close attention to the change of temperature, the wind, and the feeling of the sun on your skin. It can be turning off your smartphone or closing your inbox for certain periods to maintain a steady flow. Presence is not at all about sitting in a lotus position for long periods of time. There are simple things you can do consciously- see what works for you, and what doesn’t. Some suggestions to try out on your own:

Cleansing breath

Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated? – David Bader

Purpose: stress reliever in the moment, getting back in the body. This can be done at any time when feeling anxious, tired, sad, etc. Notice the immediate effect.

Do five breaths.

Inhale through the nose in five seconds, filling up the stomach with oxygen.

Exhale through the mouth in five seconds, really getting all the oxygen and carbon dioxide out.


Purpose: getting back in the body.

Sit down on a chair.

Bend forward and bring your fingers next to your feet. Now use one of your fingers as a pencil and very slowly and precisely draw a contour line around your feet.

Start with the left foot, and then go to the right foot. Take your time.

How not to be present – try this

  • Have dinner while watching TV. Make sure it is your favorite program.
  • Check your smartphone every 2 minutes on incoming mail or Whatsapp; make sure you do this especially when you are having a nice lunch with your best friend.
  • Think of picking up the kids at the end of the day during a meeting that is scheduled at 4pm. Make sure you do not communicate with the rest of the team that you will have to leave at a certain time. Stay put. Do not leave. Now try to focus on the meeting.
  • Do not pay attention to any feelings of discomfort or pain. If you have to go to the toilet, do not think of it and think of something else instead.
  • Start worrying about what might happen tomorrow at work. Imagine a worst-case scenario.

Presence is not a mystery. We know it when we see or feel it in others and ourselves. We know it is valuable. We also know when it is gone. True creative leaders are capable of holding on to it and integrating it into their lives to turn it a tool for true success.

By Paul van ‘t Veld & Bas Verhart

About the authors

Paul van ‘t Veld, Leadership Coach, THNK. From his personal journey Paul brings in his experience as an entrepreneur and creative director in advertising. He built his own advertising agency, Eigen Fabrikaat, which is part of the global DDB network, and has over 10 years of experience as coach-councellor. Paul has worked with people from all over the world, from all walks of life. Next to being part of THNKs core faculty since 2012, Paul works as an independent coach-councellor.
Bas Verhart, Co-Founder at THNK. Bas is co-founder of PICNIC, CEO of Media Republic and a board member of After a brief period at Heineken, Bas Verhart started MVLG eBusiness Consulting in 1997. In 2000 Bas Verhart sold MVLG eBusiness Consulting to LBi. LBi is a global marketing and technology agency blending strategic, creative, media and technical expertise to build business value. At LBI he served as board member and Group Commercial Director. In 2002 Bas Verhart and Michiel Mol founded Media Republic, an Amsterdam-based new media company. As part of Media Republic, Guerrilla Games was founded, one of Europe’s leading game development studios. In December of 2005 Guerrilla Games was sold to Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.

THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges.  Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

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Main image: Thoughts from

  • Atiqur Sumon

    Such a creative work is great.

  • Atiqur Sumon

    Advance leadership is very important for team leaders