Executive Presence

Leading with Intention, Connection and Inspiration

Whether you call it charisma, confidence or compelling leadership, executive presence is the new corporate “it” factor.
We’re talking about more than making a great first impression. Presence is multifaceted, builds over time, and is reflected in everything you say, feel and do.
In today’s competitive business environment, executive presence can make or break your ability to influence others during periods of uncertainty and change. It encourages people to seek you out and opens doors.
The concept of presence is nebulous for most people, but we all have it to a degree – and we know it when we see it in others. But most of us are unsure of how to increase our presence and develop it in others. Many people assume it’s about showmanship, charm, unabashed confidence and smooth speaking skills, but this only scratches the surface.

Leading with Intention, Connection and Inspiration

Fortunately, a spate of new books do a good job of covering the topic. Three of the best ones are:

  1. 1. Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire, by Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern (Penguin Group, 2004)
  2. 2. The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, by Kristi Hedges (Amacom, 2012)
  3. 3. Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (HarperBusiness, 2014)

Specific Criteria
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, surveyed 4,000 college-educated professionals (including 268 senior executives) to find out what coworkers and bosses look for when evaluating executive presence.
Three criteria proved critical:

  1. 1. How you act (gravitas): 67%
  2. 2. How you speak (communication): 28%
  3. 3. How you look (appearance): 5%

Gravitas signals intellectual expertise, but also confidence and credibility. Senior executives picked projecting confidence and grace under fire as presence’s most important qualities.
You communicate authority through your speaking skills and ability to command a room, the top presence picks by senior leaders. Eye contact matters enormously, according to executives surveyed, as do voice, bearing and body language.
The 5% importance attributed to appearance is misleading. Standards of appearance for leaders matter, but those being judged for executive presence already meet entry-level requirements. After that, polish and grooming contribute most.
Research from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that colleagues size up your competence, likability and trustworthiness in 250 milliseconds, based simply on looks.
First impressions matter, of course, but after that, it’s up to you to fill in the rest of the story by exuding executive presence. Your ongoing choices and actions (or lack thereof) have a considerable impact on your presence. Improvement requires you to shift your mindset, develop new behaviors and leave your comfort zone of safe habits.
An Inside Job
Presence comes from within. Your mindset creates the platform from which you speak, act and express emotions.
Begin by paying attention to how you “show up” and go about your day. How do you:

  • Connect with people?
  • Express your feelings?
  • Listen?
  • Behave?
  • Inspire others?

Next, clarify your intentions:

  • Which core values and guiding purpose truly matter (for you, for the company)?
  • Who do I intend to be (as an individual, as a member of the company)?
  • How do I intend to contribute?
  • What will I do now? What will I do next?

Intention, Connection, Inspiration
At the core of leadership is connection with others. The relationship you have with your subordinates determines how effectively you’ll influence them toward desired outcomes.
If you foster trust and empathy in your relationships, you’ll no doubt build higher-quality connections. But authentic connections can be tricky: Access to others is granted, and not automatically. A leadership position may ensure obedience (if you’re lucky), but it doesn’t guarantee trusted connections.
Winning over hearts and minds requires a nuanced approach to each individual. There are no time-saving ways to accomplish this, nor should you do it simply because it’s good for business.
Making individual connections is the only way to have a finger on the pulse of corporate culture and keep communication lines open.
The PRES Model of Leadership Presence
The three previously mentioned books offer different models for developing presence, albeit with some overlap.
Lubar and Halpern developed the “PRES” model in Leadership Presence:

  • P = Presence: the ability to be completely in the moment and flexible enough to handle the unexpected
  • R = Reaching Out: the ability to build relationships with others through empathy, listening and authentic connection
  • E = Expressiveness: the ability to express feelings and emotions appropriately by using all available means (words, voice, body, face) to deliver one congruent message
  • S = Self-Knowing: the ability to accept yourself, be authentic and reflect your values in your decisions and actions

These elements build upon each other and contribute to establishing overall presence. There are interior and exterior aspects for each component. Presence starts with mindset and radiates outward towards others.
Also important is what the PRES model is not:

  • Being Present – not pretentious
  • Reaching Out – not looking down
  • Being Expressive – not impressive
  • Being Self-Knowing – not self-absorbed

Self-knowledge separates leadership presence from self-centered charisma. You must understand your values and ensure your actions conform to them (words and deeds). Only then can you inspire others to act similarly.
 

Emotional Expressiveness for Leaders

“Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal. Great leadership works through the emotions.” ~ Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)

How well do the leaders in your organization express their emotions? What about you? Do you appropriately articulate your feelings? Do you use emotional expressiveness to persuade and inspire others?
Leaders are responsible for their organizations’ energy levels. While research has demonstrated a strong link among excitement, commitment and business results, many leaders stumble at emotional expressiveness. They hesitate to express both positive and negative emotions in an effort to maintain credibility, authority and gravitas. Consequently, they’re losing one of the best tools for achieving impact.

Emotional Intelligence

“The role of emotional maturity in leadership is crucial.”

~ Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire (Penguin Group, USA, 2004)
MBA programs don’t teach emotional expressiveness, although professors often address emotional intelligence as an important leadership quality.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your – and others’ – moods and emotions, and it’s a critical component of effective leadership. Leaders at all organizational levels must master:

  1. Appraisal and expression of emotions
  2. Use of emotion to enhance cognitive processes and decision-making
  3. The psychology of emotions
  4. Appropriate management of emotions

Every message has an emotional component, so leaders must learn to articulate and express their feelings. Mastering this objective inspires your team in five essential domains:

  1. Developing collective goals
  2. Instilling an appreciation of work’s importance
  3. Generating and maintaining enthusiasm, confidence, optimism, cooperation and trust
  4. Encouraging flexibility in decision-making and change management
  5. Establishing and maintaining a meaningful organizational identity

Leaders create authentic relationships by expressing interest in their people and showing empathy. They must also learn to express their emotions publicly.

Myths about Emotions

When leaders communicate, they often focus on message clarity and overlook its important emotional component. To generate excitement, they need to master their emotional expressiveness.
But most leaders demonstrate resistance. They cling to long-standing assumptions that showing emotions:

  • Is unbecoming
  • Undermines authority
  • Reveals a lack of control
  • Conveys irrationality
  • Indicates weakness and vulnerability
  • Isn’t masculine (and is, therefore, too feminine)

Men in leadership positions don’t want to come across as dictatorial, angry or moody. Their female counterparts avoid showing emotions because they believe it plays into stereotypes about women being high-strung.

Does Your Head Overrule Your Heart?

In business, we’re highly respected for our sharp minds, to the extent that we frequently squelch our emotional voices.
Peter Bregman addresses this issue in “Don’t Let Your Head Attack Your Heart,” a July 2014 Harvard Business Review blog post:
We are trained and rewarded, in schools and in organizations, to lead with a fast, witty and critical mind. And it serves us well. The mind can be logical, clear, incisive and powerful. It perceives, positions, politics and protects. One of its many talents is to defend us from emotional vulnerability, which it does, at times, with jokes and quick repartee.
The heart, on the other hand, has no comebacks, no quips. Gentle, slow and unprotected, an open heart is easily attacked, especially by a frightened mind. And feelings scare the mind.
It’s no wonder that leaders become entrenched in a comfort zone of data, facts and ideas. But failure to show emotions makes leaders far less effective. Without recognizing our feelings, our ability to make wise decisions is impaired.

3 Basic Techniques

Lubar and Halpern offer three guidelines for developing expressiveness that inspires others, influences change and drives business results.
1. Generate Excitement
Creating excitement begins with showing enthusiasm and fighting the urge to suppress it. You’ll deepen your bond with others by revealing your humanity and vulnerability.
Anger, frustration and pain, when properly expressed, also bring us closer to one another. Never forget, however, that expressing emotion has a powerful effect, so think before you emote.
2. Put Nonverbal Cues to Work
While the words you choose play an important role in your message’s emotional impact, research tells us that facial and body cues may be even more significant.
Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, conducted studies that revealed:

  • Words account for only 7% of a speaker’s impact.
  • Vocal tone is responsible for 38%.
  • Body language trumps them both at an astounding 55%.

Despite these game-changing findings, most of us spend 99% of our time on crafting language when planning a presentation – and a mere 1% on how we’re going to convey our message.
You lose credibility when your face and body send different messages. You may not even be aware of your “tics”: unconscious movements or gestures that are out of sync with how you truly feel.
Speak from your core values to achieve alignment. If you’re struggling, consider hiring an experienced executive coach. The challenge is too important to ignore. Your overall leadership presence ultimately determines whether you’re perceived as a strong candidate for promotion.
3. Find and Express a Passionate
Purpose-Leaders generally try to explain or relay information. This very act lacks energy, passion and/or tension. Instead of using dry, colorless verbs to convey your point, substitute action words that carry emotional intensity.
For example, don’t “make an announcement to explain upcoming changes.” Instead, “challenge people to make some adjustments” or “overcome obstacles to success.” Focus on what truly matters: your passionate purpose.
Connect with your inner passions by asking yourself:

  • What am I fighting for?
  • What do others want?
  • What are the obstacles?Use your answers to choose verbs that capture your passionate purpose.

Never forget that every human interaction – from meetings and presentations to memos and face-to-face conversations – involves needs and desires, real or potential conflicts. These pivotal moments are opportunities to change minds and influence behavior. Your goal is to identify the desired change or problem to be overcome and invest it with energy and passion.