Updated: Dec 22, 2020
If you have held leadership positions for any length of time, then you have probably heard the term “executive presence” but might have been uncertain of its relative importance. Some people have it, and some people don’t – or at least that’s what many of us think. The truth? Not only can you develop executive presence – you can own it! This means that it becomes a part of who you are as a person and as a leader.
When executive presence is authentic rather than a set of practiced mechanics, the changes come from within and transform the outer man or woman. This is what I refer to as authentic presence, and it takes the concept of executive presence far deeper than a learned behavior. But first, let’s unpack these concepts and gain more insight.
What Does Executive Presence Look Like?
Executive presence is the ability to project gravitas (dignity and seriousness) in key situations, which includes maintaining poise under pressure and acting decisively when necessary. Leaders aspire to achieve greater executive presence because it is key to career advancement and broader opportunities. The Center for Talent Innovation reports that executive presence accounts for 25% of all the factors considered for promotion at senior levels. It is easy to see why so many aspiring leaders covet this cool-under-pressure trait.
But it’s also important to understand what doesn’t qualify as executive presence. It’s not arrogance, even though some people choose to check humility at the door. These folks often confuse presence with commanding control, which tends to flatten others rather than bringing them aboard. Additionally, executive presence is not a title, position, or fine suit (although it can help). Many professionals have all three of these but seriously lack the confidence and decisiveness of a leader.
Traditional executive presence often refers to external characteristics like appearance, polish, and refinement. It also includes some personality traits like influence, communication and empathy. Because many of these qualities live on the surface, you can study, develop and learn to mimic them.
However, learned behaviors that don’t result in internal change rarely last. It becomes more of a striving that saps energy and projects an inconsistent image. After all, on bad days it’s much more difficult to manufacture these behaviors. That’s why I believe it’s far more important to seek after authentic presence.
How Is Authentic Presence Different?
When executive presence is authentic rather than manufactured, the internal changes transform the outer person. So, authentic presence in executive leadership must be rooted in self-acceptance - the idea that I’m at peace with myself and am comfortable in my skin - warts and all.
However, this doesn’t mean that everything in life is, or will be, outstanding. Rather, it means that regardless of the ups and downs of life, you’re internally okay - you’re centered. Miraculously, when you achieve this consistent sense of well-being, fears diminish and hold far less power over you. You’re better equipped to navigate life and collaborate with others in a manner that both receives and demonstrates respect. This is when confidence and composure take root, transforming your professional and personal life.
As you can see, authentic presence isn’t a quick fix, which is why many people focus on outward appearance and behaviors to give the illusion of presence or leadership. You may be reading this because you want genuine change for the better that alters the course of your life and awakens the greater potential that’s been hibernating inside you all along.