Executive presence might be the most highly sought-after, hotly debated, and sometimes least well-defined characteristic of strong leaders. There is no doubt that the ability to have presence is critical to leadership success. However, what does executive presence mean? How can an organization move beyond a cursory definition and truly understand what is at the core of this elusive leadership need?
At BlessingWhite, we have worked with, and coached, thousands of leaders over the course of our 45+ years in leadership development and employee engagement. Our partnership with thought leaders, proprietary research, and practical experience have led us back to several key truths about developing executive presence.
Although executive presence is a complex mix of several attributes, each deployed at the right time in the appropriate context, in the end, this strong leadership quality comes down to four core elements that leaders should care about:
Confidence – Sometimes referred to as “gravitas,” leadership confidence is about expressing oneself in a way that commands both respect and approachability. This is not about arrogance, but about demonstrating a sense of positivity and control. It is about reassuring others that you, as a leader, have the competence to lead, to be successful, and to lead others successfully.
According to Pegeen Newman, Vice President of Talent Management at ComNet Communications, “A confident leader is credible and can bring others along with them. They don’t need to have all the answers nor do they pretend to. In fact, a leader’s executive presence increases when they have a comfort in publicly stating, ‘I don’t know.’”
Awareness – Awareness is a combination of self-awareness and awareness of others. It is about understanding who you are as a leader and how you come across to others. Awareness relates to emotional intelligence—the ability to read other people’s signals and react appropriately to them.
It is also the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your followers to understand how they are feeling and how they are being impacted by the world around them and by you. A leader with executive presence adapts and shifts into different roles. At times, they may need to demonstrate their leadership as the captain in the room. For a different audience, showing vulnerability, demonstrating empathy, and sharing their concerns shows awareness.
Resilience – Resilience is the ability to handle challenges and bounce back from setbacks. A resilient leader maintains their poise under stressful circumstances. When a leader is able to remain balanced even in the face of resistance, their executive presence shines through. In the face of controversy or criticism, a leader must not only remain confident, they must also continue to remain calm. Resilient leaders stay true to their values. Followers know who they are and what they stand for—even in the face of great challenges, effective leaders don’t waiver from the core of whom they are.
Barbara Pelly, who coaches senior-level leaders in this area, indicates, “The most effective leaders remain calm under pressure. They know what triggers them and they can manage their responses while still being honest with themselves and others. They have the ability to create an environment where people can feel confident about the future and their leader even in times of ambiguity.”
Effective Communication – Finally, it’s not enough to have confidence, awareness, and resiliency; a leader with executive presence must have the communication skills to effectively convey all three. They must be able to demonstrate that they are competent by appealing to people’s rational side. At the same time, their communication must create a sense of connection with the individuals with whom they are interacting. Communicating in an intentional, yet authentic, way is key.
Patrick Chenot, Executive Vice President, Chief Learning Officer at Havas Health and You recalls one such leader, “I was drawn to him because he clearly communicated his vision and, at the same time, he was likable. I could relate to him on a personal level but could also follow him due to his presence.”
You know you’ve been with a leader who has executive presence when you feel the impact of their message long after they’ve left the room.
Can you spot executive presence?
Identifying someone who has executive presence is doable. But you won’t be able to find them by reviewing a pile of résumés. Why? With effective leadership, it’s not “I’ll know it when I see it”; it’s more about “I’ll know it when I feel it and sense it.” Leaders who have this type of presence have authority but are not arrogant. They are confident without being brash. They are aware of others but aren’t too soft. The ability to maintain this balance happens naturally, but it’s not something that can be codified. You’ll be able to identify an effective leader through the lasting impression they make on how you feel—not just about them but how you feel about yourself after hearing them or interacting with them. A leader with executive presence is memorable.
Can you develop executive presence?
This is the trickier question without a straightforward answer. Yes, there is a foundational willingness to be self-reflective, to expand self-awareness, and to work on it—continuously. At the same time, the paradox of executive gravitas is that it is best served authentically. If individuals feel you are wearing the mask instead of authentically embodying it, it immediately crumbles.
Nevertheless, there are things leaders can do to enhance the essential elements of executive presence. Practicing mindfulness can support the presence and calmness that conveys confidence. Assessing and recognizing one’s own emotional intelligence and areas for growth can improve awareness skills. Resilience can be improved by mindfulness, increased emotional intelligence, and improved coping skills.
Finding trusted colleagues who will give you feedback in these areas is an important step. Mentors can also play a critical role, particularly if they are able to see you in the workplace and see your skills in context. Perhaps most valuable is the support of an executive coach who can “hold a mirror” up to an executive and ask the tough questions that often lead to real breakthroughs. Of the four elements, effective communication is the most tangible around which to develop skills. Following an intentional process with a focus on word choice, use of metaphor, and connecting the message to your values is key.
Can you be a leader without it?
The short answer is yes. It stands to reason that not every individual with situational authority has the right presence. A leader without executive gravitas can be effective, achieve goals, and get others to follow them. A leader with executive presence inspires a higher level of engagement and loyalty. Still others see this quality as a differentiator in other ways. According to Chenot, “I believe executive presence could be a differentiator between a very good manager, and the far more elusive moniker of leader. It’s goes beyond the possession of skill sets like discipline acumen, managerial ability, and even team building, to the far more aspirational skills like vision, confidence, and even communication skills.”
Executive presence is likely to remain on the top of the list of sought-after strong leadership qualities. Hold onto the leaders who have it—they can be hard to find. Work with your leaders to cultivate the skills that can improve it. Know that it will always remain a little mysterious and more than a little bit elusive. And, in a way, that’s part of its impact.