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Art of command presence

Think of a traumatic situation you were involved in where someone took charge. What made them the authoritative figure in the situation? Why did others accept their authority? Some leaders are naturally able to command respect during stressful times. Others must work harder to perfect this art, writes the American healthcare security man Kevin Mulcahy.

Please note that the title of this article is the Art of Command Presence and not the Science of Command Presence. While literature on the topic is helpful, this is a skill that must be practiced. Much like developing acting skills for a theater production, perfecting command presence takes hard work and dedication. Whether your profession is Police or Security services, you will interact with angry, agitated, distraught, verbally aggressive, and/or physically violent individuals nearly on a daily basis. It is important to note that becoming an authoritative figure during stressful times does not happen overnight. This is a skill that, like a fine wine, gets better with time.

Early on in my career I lacked bedside manner and tried to make up for it by being louder and tougher than the other guy. Barking orders rarely elicits positive results and never earns respect. Invading someone’s personal space in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance will either result in the person becoming fearful, or reacting even more aggressively. There can sometimes be a fine line between being an authoritative leader and being a bully. Some situations necessitate the need for an immediate and aggressive response. Encountering a suspect with a knife raised over their head and coming toward you is one example. You do not have time to build a rapport with the individual and help to calm them down gradually. This is an extreme example, but many potentially dangerous situations can be resolved before they become serious.

One situation that involved an impressive performance of command presence occurred recently at the hospital I work for. A security officer was called to speak to a former patient who was irate about the medical bill he received. He was yelling and swearing at the clerk behind the counter and waving his arms around in anger. The man turned toward the security officer as he approached. The officer was dressed impeccably with a freshly pressed uniform and boots polished to a mirror-like shine. He was walking confidently with his eyes focused on the man and a smile on his face. He shook the man’s hand and told him he was there to listen to his concerns. The man explained that he had a recent surgery and was not expecting the bill to be quite so high. The security officer may have used what a good friend calls “therapeutic fibbing” in order to be more relatable to the man.

Agreeing that the cost of healthcare is outrageous gave the man the feeling that the security officer was more of an ally than an adversary. The security officer then noticed that the man was wearing a Harley Davidson motorcycle shirt. This spurred a conversation about motorcycles and soon the man and the officer were talking and joking like old friends. Eventually the man paid his bill in full (in cash) and walked out of the hospital still talking about motorcycles with the security officer. This security officer had spent nearly 30 years honing his skills as a police officer and more recently as a hospital security officer. As a younger and less experienced member of his team I try to imitate the successful behaviors of others while developing my own style of command presence.

While every situation is different, there are many constants that help to project a command presence. A proper fitting uniform that is freshly pressed and wrinkle free is the first step. No one will take someone seriously wearing a uniform that is ill fitting and full of wrinkles. The next step is confidence. The art of projecting a calm and confident demeanor when faced with a stressful situation allows others to transfer responsibility to you and helps them to relax. Once an anxious or agitated person begins to relax, they are more open to converse. Conversation almost always deescalates tense situations. Most people just want someone that cares enough to listen and understands that they are in a difficult situation.

Again, the art of “therapeutic fibbing” helps to build rapport. I do not advocate lying in the majority of situations. Being slightly more agreeable than usual helps the person believe that you are on their side and understand what they are going through. Once a rapport is developed, the chances of a violent outburst are drastically decreased. Whether controlling a motor vehicle accident scene as a police officer or calming agitated patients as a security officer in a hospital setting, the art of command presence is crucial to successful outcomes. The tips found in this article are a good starting point, but the only way to become skilled is to practice. Every interaction is different and may necessitate a different response. Every situation requires you to look the part and act the part by looking professional and exuding confidence that will calm people in most situations.

About the author

Kevin Mulcahy is a Security Sergeant for Lakes Region General Healthcare in New Hampshire. He holds a BS in Business Management and is currently pursuing an MBA in Hospital Administration at Plymouth State University. He is certified in both hospital security and hospital safety. He has experience in loss prevention, risk management, and law enforcement. He is a member of the US-based International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety (IAHSS).


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