Almost everyone is familiar with the term “executive presence.”  Read nearly any business journal or leadership book and, chances are, you’ll see the term thrown around liberally.  The challenge comes in separating executive presence from the mystique that surrounds it.  Let’s debunk a few myths and try to describe the concept concisely.      

Leaders may be tempted to sell themselves short by assuming that executive presence is something one receives (or doesn’t receive) at birth.  When we tie executive presence to charisma, physical appearance, personality type, or personal magnetism, we risk missing the opportunity to develop our full potential because we believe “we either have it or we don’t.”  However, everyone falls along a continuum between an exceptionally weak and exceptionally strong executive presence, and we control our development. 

My definition of executive presence is “the way a leader is ‘present’ in the world.”  It has to do with the way executives carry themselves, how they connect with others, how they’re aware of what’s going on around them.  Let me suggest three attributes (with associated behaviors) of strong executive presence.  Leaders who demonstrate strong executive presence:

  • Are comfortable in their own skin.  They’re firmly grounded and are capable of self-validation.  This frees them from an inordinate need for recognition and deference.  Self-secure leaders waste no time or energy role-playing and posturing.  As the saying goes, “needy is not attractive.”  When Lincoln was elected President, throngs of citizens ridiculed the “Hick from Illinois” and several states seceded from the Union.  Thankfully, Lincoln was undeterred.  Embrace your uniqueness and unashamedly take your place at the table.   
  • Inspire confidence. Organizations and teams take their behavioral cues from leaders. Don’t underestimate the degree to which executives shape organizational culture.  Teammates instinctively look to the leader to answer questions such as “Should we panic?” or “Where are we headed?” or “Do we know what we’re doing?” or “Can we trust each other?”  When we become executives who can regulate our emotions during a crisis, articulate an organizational vision, demonstrate a deep understanding of our enterprise, and display unquestionable integrity, we enhance our executive presence and make it more likely that we’ll build a culture in which our people can thrive.   
  • Add value to others.  Author Jim Collins, in his classic book Good to Great, refers to the best executives as “Level 5 Leaders.”  Level 5s, he tells us, possess substantial ambition.  What sets them apart from others, however, is that their ambition is channeled toward the success of the organization and the development of its people.  Those with strong executive presence “walk into the room” with a view toward what they can give, rather than what they can get.  Begin to think of your role/position as a stewardship and find ways to make others better by simply having been in your presence

Much more could be added to this discussion, but take confidence in the idea that you’ll strengthen your executive presence (and more fully enjoy the journey) as you apply these behaviors.