Two Definitions Of Presence by Nicholas Janni

By Guest Contributor Nicholas Janni, Author of Leader As Healer

I write this in the context of the events unfolding in Ukraine. Like many of you, I feel deeply affected on a daily basis. My tears flow freely at footage of the human suffering, the displacements, the separations, the bereavements, and I feel chilled to the bone when I turn my feeling awareness towards the primary perpetrator, an energy field of terrifying coldness, devoid of humanity, seemingly without limit to the destruction and suffering he is prepared to inflict.

I am also of course deeply touched and inspired by the incredible spirit and bravery of the Ukrainian people and by President Zelensky – remarkable leadership of the highest order. I very much doubt that if he had fled, as so many leaders would have, the Ukrainian people would have been so motivated and united in their resistance.

It is a core part of my personal training and practice, and my leadership programmes and coaching, to support us all to develop the capacity to turn towards that which we might so easily turn away from, in ourselves and in the world around us. The ‘turning away’, in all its multiple manifestations, is one of the primary pillars of the cultures of ‘absence’, and the fragmentation in which we are so entrenched.

To turn away, we have to freeze our life energy. We have to reduce our emotional responsiveness and detach from our bodies, retreating into a detached bubble of thinking. In short, we go numb. This in itself is an entirely appropriate self-protection regulation in the face of overwhelm, and in our earlier life was often no less than a crucial survival mechanism.

But if we are committed to the development of our highest possibilities in life and in leadership, then it behoves us to find the practices and circumstances in which we can feel safe enough to gradually melt the numbness, in order to release the intelligence in the life energy that has been frozen.

This is a primary commitment of Leader as Healer

The first definition of Presence – “I am here, and I am available”

‘Here’ meaning:

  • I am here – connected to my body and all its sensing capacity, emotionally available and empathic, in touch with my intuition, aware of my thinking, and grounded in a sense of inner space, and what I previously called Being

‘Available’ meaning that, because of the above, I have space inside myself and therefore:

  • I fully take you in – I listen to your words, while at the same time I feel you, your interior world, the emotions moving or blocked in you
  • Whatever scenario I am addressing, I listen, respond and navigate with all my capacities, of which only one is my sophisticated thinking/analytical function.
  • I am therefore open to hearing and receiving higher levels of insight and wisdom, the ones that ‘come to me’ when I have learnt how to be receptive, that are always new and fresh, beyond anything I had previously thought of.

These are core qualities of the presence of Leader as Healer

The second definition of Presence

As the above qualities become anchored at the centre of a leader’s life, a different kind of threshold may appear, one that is a portal to a transformed level of participation and agency in life.

Joseph Campbell wrote: “We have lost the path where the transcendent is transparent”.

I experienced this particularly vividly one hot day in Egypt. I had made the long climb upward to the main chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Inside, there were only the stark, stone walls and a solitary open stone sarcophagus. As soon as I arrived in the chamber, alone, I was transfixed by the atmosphere. After a few minutes, I found myself immersed in an altered state, similar to those I knew from my meditative and creative practices, except for its unusual intensity. I closed my eyes and soon lost all sense of time. I felt as if I were standing in the epicentre of a great energy vortex.

Eventually, a small group of other tourists arrived, and it was clear that they were irritated by the climb. Within seconds of arriving, a woman angrily proclaimed, “There’s nothing here!” and stormed out, followed quickly by her companions.

In contemporary culture, the transcendent is all too rarely transparent. We are mostly far too busy and self-obsessed to notice it.

The great 13th century Persian mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī invited us to “Live in the Nowhere that you come from, even though you have an address here”.

‘Nowhere’ is timeless, completely outside of 2022. It always was, always is, and always will be. Nothing can ever change that. Accessing it more constantly is the deeper purpose of meditative practice.

To be rooted in it is NOT a way to disassociate from ‘here’ (although it can be and is misused in that way). On the contrary, it permits us to feel the world even more robustly, vulnerably and nakedly, with our deepest humanity; and yet to relate to, respond to and navigate ‘here’ from an inner ground that does not depend on anything exterior in the world for illusions of stability and certainty.

Grounded in Nowhere. Fully engaged with here. This is the second, deeper meaning of Presence, and again, a core part of the calling of Leader as Healer.

The great leader, like the great scientist and the great artist, has matured enough to realize that the higher levels of creativity, insight and innovation are not something we do. Rather, they do us.

The Leader as Healer has matured enough to know how and when to bow and surrender to the emergence of new ideas and higher insights. To listen in a completely different way, because they understand first, that many of the insights and innovations that we urgently need, organisationally and societally, will arrive in this way; and second, that we cannot know exactly what they will be until they appear. And that their appearance requires us to embody profound levels of presence that are in many ways the opposite of how our doing-obsessed culture operates.

The need for leaders to show up now with these two interrelated kinds of Presence is, I suggest, more urgent than ever.


Nicholas Janni is a transformational coach and leadership development expert. Over the last 20 years, he gained an international reputation for his leadership programmes, designed for chief executives and top teams from diverse sectors, public and private. Nicholas also teaches at Oxford University and the IMD Business School.


Suggested Reading

Leader As Healer outlines both a theoretical and practical map towards a new form of leadership, one that embodies the ‘skill, heart, and wisdom’ that the current moment demands. The pathway Janni describes is one of integration and restoration, which is designed to reawaken the innate human capacities – physical and emotional, individual and transpersonal – that were previously discarded and forgotten during our perilous journey towards profit-maximization and “infinite” economic growth. It offers a way to grow ourselves as leaders and to heal our organizations. 

More information