Executive Presence Article 1: Navigating the Path from Expertise to Impact

In the early 2000s, a small but resilient community in East Timor hosted Sérgio Vieira de Mello and his United Nations team. Their mandate was to transition the former Indonesian territory to independence, against a backdrop of displaced peoples, warlords, local resistance to change, and global UN instability. De Mello’s experience in East Timor serves as a testament to the power of leveraging informal channels and tools to push one’s agenda forward. De Mello’s story, immortalised in print and film, is a compelling example of how to bridge the gap between technical competence and meaningful impact, with the right mindset and tools at hand.


Focus on Legitimacy


De Mello’s journey in East Timor began with his dedication to a cause close to his heart. He recognised the power of informal networks in the local community, and it was through these networks that he initiated change. He realised that in such an environment, formal power structures held limited sway. This insight leads us to the first tool for pushing an agenda: “Focus on legitimacy.” Understanding the distinctions between formal and informal power, and establishing credibility through actions and authenticity, allowed De Mello to be seen as legitimate by the community, earning their trust and respect.


Invest in Relationships


Crucially, De Mello also invested in relationships. He knew that treating people with dignity was the bedrock of a great working relationship, as relationships can be a potent source of influence. Treating everyone he encountered with respect, whether they were local leaders or ordinary villagers, helped him build strong bonds of trust and cooperation. This practice illustrates the second tool: “Invest in relationships.” In any field, fostering strong connections with others can be a cornerstone of success.


Appreciate Symbolism


In his quest to drive change, De Mello appreciated the power of symbolism. He realised that symbols could effectively represent his agenda and inspire others to join his cause. In a place like East Timor, where verbal and written communication may be limited, symbolism speaks volumes. Symbolism is our third tool: “Appreciate symbolism.” Whether it’s a visual representation of your mission or a gesture that embodies your values, using symbols can help convey your message in a powerful and memorable way.


Value Flexibility


De Mello’s success also relied on his ability to adapt to different situations. He understood that sometimes showing determination and forcefulness was necessary, while at other times, inviting participation was the key to progress. This flexibility in his approach was another crucial tool: “Value flexibility.” Recognising when to push forward assertively and when to collaborate and engage with others is essential when navigating complex agendas.


Make Trade-offs


Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from De Mello’s experience in East Timor is the art of making trade-offs. He realised that to achieve larger, more meaningful goals, he had to be willing to sacrifice smaller objectives along the way. This willingness to make strategic trade-offs is the fifth tool: “Make trade-offs.” It’s about prioritising and focusing on what truly matters, even if it means letting go of some immediate gains.


Mindset: Learning from Imperfection


To successfully bridge the gap between technical competence and meaningful impact, it is important to cultivate the right mindset. Leaders can’t be perfect, and they make mistakes. Trying something out is not failure. Not learning from a setback is failure. Going beyond just-world thinking is essential. Recognise that the world can be unfair, and success often depends on your ability to navigate and shape your circumstances. This mindset shift is crucial when dealing with setbacks or challenges that may arise.


It’s vital not to blame circumstances. Instead of dwelling on external factors that might hinder progress, focus on what you can control and the actions you can take to drive change. This proactive approach can make a significant difference in pushing your agenda forward.


Taking initiative is another key mindset component. De Mello’s story exemplifies the power of taking the lead and being the change you want to see. Waiting for others to act may not yield the desired results, so seise the opportunity to initiate positive change.


Finally, and to reiterate, don’t underestimate the importance of symbolism in leadership. De Mello’s ability to use symbols effectively enhanced his impact in East Timor. Leaders who understand the significance of symbolism can inspire and mobilise others more effectively, turning their technical expertise into meaningful change.


This article is based on my experience completing the @Wharton course “Executive Presence and Influence: Persuasive Leadership Development”.





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