One of the most common reasons that leaders don’t get chosen for a high-level position is because they do not have executive presence. What does it mean to be lacking in executive presence? Could it be the reason you didn’t get that promotion, even though you were the most qualified? Maybe your career has stalled and you’re not sure why? Or, you just wish that you were able to get people to listen to your ideas so you could have more influence.
Researchers have identified the following areas as the most frequently addressed in leadership coaching: (1) Poor communication skills, (2) general self-presentation, and (3) lack of assertiveness and self-confidence (Golson, 2006). When leaders get low evaluations for their performance it is most often due to their inability to motivate their employees to make changes. In other words, while a leader gets promoted because of his ability to get things done, his career will stall if he can’t get other people to get things done.
Presence is essential to effective leadership because it enables leaders to reach their people to inspire action. Executive presence is the ability to consistently and clearly articulate your objectives to influence others. It is fundamental to engaging and motivating people. One of the most powerful aspects of presence is that even when you’re not in the room, your presence can still be felt. Imagine what improvements you could make and what kind of long-term impact you could have.
There are many misconceptions about executive presence that keep people from trying to improve this leadership quality. The first one is that someone either has presence or they don’t. Maybe you are thinking right now: I don’t have presence and I’ll never get it. Presence, however, is not either or, there’s a continuum. Executive presence is a set of skills that can be learned and developed through practice. If you know that you need to work on presence to be a better leader, then you are already way ahead of your peers.
Another misconception about executive presence is that you must be an extravert who can sell their ideas. Some people think that you need to fake confidence or pretend to be something you’re not. But presence does not mean perfection. It does not come from over-rehearsing a carefully crafted speech written by a staff of professionals. A critical component of presence is the ability to be your natural, yes, I’ll say it, authentic self. The courage, to be honest, is much more important than “selling skills” and you don’t have to be extraverted to persuade and connect with other people.
The most satisfying moments of my career have come from witnessing the change in someone when he discovers his purpose. Once a person gains the confidence to express what they believe into others, they experience a new sense of power. The light behind their eyes and the enthusiasm in their voice are difficult to fake. Demonstrating presence allows you to be yourself, express your values, and talk about what’s important to you. Presence is the ability to show who you are as a leader, with clarity and confidence. When you get excited about your mission and what you’re trying to achieve as a leader, others will get excited too. That’s how you get people moving.
So how do you develop executive presence? There’s no single formula that works for everyone. You can’t study videos of charismatic leaders and borrow their hand gestures or facial expressions. You can’t just adopt someone else’s style. Your delivery will not only be awkward and uncomfortable to watch, but your communication will not have the desired impact. Presence involves much more than just adjusting your presentation style. It’s about learning how to emotionally engage people and inspiring them to take action.
The best way to develop your own unique presence is to do in-depth work to identify your core values and create a personal mission statement. Because if you don’t know what you are trying to get people to do, how are you going to motivate them? It is also crucial that you get objective (sometimes tough to hear) feedback about what is preventing you from having the influence that you want to have. A trusted partner can help you figure out how to “get real” and connect with people on a personal level.
Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, 2018.
Hodge Golson, PhD, Influence for Impact: Increasing Your Effectiveness in the Organization, 2006.
Amy Su & Muriel Wilins, Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, 2013. (Su and Wilkins)