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Retrieving Presence

3 min read

Immediately overcome with longing and desire for a cookie, he gets very excited and starts breathing rapidly.  He jumps up and down and tries to control himself, but he can’t contain his authentic excitement. Finally he just lets go of all restraint and screams at the top of his lungs, “I want a chocolate chip cookie, NOW!!”

One of the most important principles informing the practice of leadership presence is the concept that we all have a natural presence—fully available to us at all times. This contrasts with the notion that effective presence is something that we have to acquire. Rather, presence, if we want to get “better” at it, can be thought of as a quality that we may choose to retrieve.

Kristin Linklater, the great American voice teacher who developed the methodology referred to as Freeing the Natural Voice, tells a parable that describes the process of how individuals lose touch — as a result of their upbringing, conditioning, and education — with authentic human impulses to communicate. In my training with her as a voice teacher, I heard the story and have subsequently shared it with hundreds of clients and students over the years. Here’s my version of the Chocolate Chip Cookie Story.

One day Johnny walks into the kitchen and sees the cookie jar. Immediately overcome with longing and desire for a cookie, he gets very excited and starts breathing rapidly. He jumps up and down and tries to control himself, but he can’t contain his authentic excitement. Finally he just lets go of all restraint and screams at the top of his lungs, “I want a chocolate chip cookie, NOW!!”

His mother comes in from the next room and, appropriately, corrects Johnny’s behavior by saying carefully, “Now Johnny, that is not a nice way to ask for a cookie. The answer is no, you may not have a cookie until you learned to ask for it politely.”

So Johnny frets and sulks for a while and walks away. But the lure of the cookie is too great and he soon returns to the kitchen. Once again, overcome with desire, he starts breathing rapidly, jumps up and down trying to unsuccessfully to contain his excitement and almost blurts out —

But Johnny has learned. He checks his impulses, holds his breath, carefully prepares himself, turns quietly to his mother and, in a very soft and gentle voice, says: “Mommy, pretty please, with sugar on top, may I have a chocolate chip cookie, please?”

Mommy replies, “Of course, my dear son, that is the proper way to ask for a cookie. Yes, you may indeed have a chocolate chip cookie — in fact you may have two.”

And that is how Johnny begins to lose his natural voice.

The story is used in the training of actors as an example of the power of socialization as one of the processes by which we unconsciously learn habits of communication and behavior that limit our full range of expressivity. In the context of an actor training, of course, the story is a tragic one… poor Johnny is on the verge of losing touch with the natural emotional impulses that would serve him if he was to embark on a career as an actor.

The teaching point of the story, however, is not that socialization is wrong or inappropriate. On the contrary — a world without parents and teachers who carefully prepare us to adapt to the norms of society would be a chaotic and uncivilized world indeed. Rather, the lesson of the story as it relates to our topic of leadership presence is that the impulse to communicate with passion and full expressivity of voice and body, is imprinted deeply within all of us, along with all of the animal instincts that we have inherited over millions of years of evolution. How we ultimately choose to manage those impulses as a society and as individuals is a matter of our own choosing.

Even more important is the lesson that the Chocolate Chip Cookie story does not explicitly teach. That is, regardless of our upbringing or education, the innate qualities of communication with which we were originally born are accessible, should we have reason and motivation to go digging for them within us. This principle of retrieving what has been temporarily misplaced and forgotten, as opposed to inventing new behaviors outright, is essential to the topic of developing our presence as leaders.

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