How Leaders Lead When They Aren’t Leading: The Power of a Calming Essence with Kenan Thompson

Much has been written about the ways a leader exudes presence. While there’s no singular definition, presence is often associated with charisma, how someone looks, and/or the way they connect with others. The impact of these factors cannot be overemphasized. However, there’s another aspect of presence that is also a key leadership characteristic, one attuned with a zen-like quality. It’s a more passive state of being that I call essence.

Essence is what someone conveys when they are not directly providing leadership. As leaders live in a fish bowl, there are times when their guard is down and it feels like no one is paying attention. It may occur while walking through the halls or engaging in casual chitchat or participating (not facilitating) in a meeting. And in these moments, the leader’s essence is on full display.

I recall a manager in my early years who would speed walk to other departments with a determined expression that seemed to say, “The world will blow up if I don’t get to my next meet in 5….4….3….2….oh no!” When he appeared, you could feel the tension. It was nothing he said or overtly did, it was his essence.

Knowing that essence is contagious, I’d like to propose that leaders focus their essence on conveying calmness. The most successful, effective leaders I know are able to remain centered in the midst of chaos. Whether it is resiliency or discipline, they consistently react in a balanced manner without allowing stress or strong emotions to cloud their judgment.

Appearing calm is not equivalent to being lassiez faire—no one has risen through the corporate ranks by incorporating a relaxed “surfer dude” vibe. No, a calm essence is projecting the feeling that everything is under control. In times of high tension this may seem difficult (and it is), but the team can operate with a level head when the internal backdrop of the leader is based on confidence in themself and those they lead. One person who does this well is Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson.

According to a recent article, when Thompson joined the show, he was skilled at memorizing and consistently delivering his parts, which made him a favorite amongst the writers, but he wanted to make his mark as an SNL star. To do this, Thompson needed to figure out what he could do better than the rest of the cast.

The first couple years, [I was] just panic-stricken, not knowing if I’m doing good or not knowing if I’m making an impression or the right impression.—Kenan Thompson

So Thompson made a conscious decision to become essential in other ways. He built a reputation on his calming essence. According to SNL announcer and former cast member Darrell Hammond, “I looked for him every day just to talk, just to shoot the shit about something. He made me feel good.” Bill Hader discussed how Thompson jokes with other actors seconds before they go on air, sending them onstage with a laugh and an air of confidence.

If this isn’t enough, Thompson watches sketches that he’s not in, offering words of encouragement when something doesn’t work. He compliments writers when they write a good joke. He watches new cast members from the side of the stage to provide a boost of support.

If you were designing the person perfect for SNL, most of the components would look like Kenan.—Lorne Michaels

In a workplace where actors are fighting every week for airtime, Thompson’s essence makes him an unspoken bedrock within SNL’s competitive environment. And he does it without a job title denoting any supervisory skills. It is not part of his job description. There is no extra compensation.

That being said, maybe the writers write him sketches because he is so supportive. Maybe other cast members want to work with him because of how he makes them feel. And maybe one of the reasons he’s been on the show for fourteen years (the longest tenure in SNL history) is because of the positive effect he has on cast and crew.

All leaders can benefit from embodying Thompson’s calming factor. Just slow down internally. Maintain perspective. Be cognizant of the end-goal. Don’t let the pressures visibly weigh on you. If all of this fails, breathe deeply, smile, and repeat the mantra “I will not panic” until you are behind closed doors.