News & Insight
December 2010

Executive Presence

"When leaders with executive presence speak, people listen - because the talk is filled with conviction instead of equivocation. They inspire that I'll-follow-you-anywhere loyalty, conveying an aura of warmth and authenticity to everybody from the receptionist to the CEO." (BusinessWeek, July 2002)

What is Executive Presence?
Executive presence, also referred to as leadership presence, is an essential component of effective leadership, but it is difficult to define in precise terms and varies depending on the culture of the organization, country or region, or other environment in which the executive operates.

Executive presence is not simply charm and charisma; while an enthusiastic and naturally magnetic personality can be a valuable element in a leader's individual executive presence, it is neither sufficient nor necessary in creating an enduring and compelling presence. It is also not necessary to be an extravert; introverts and those who lead somewhat more quietly can demonstrate impressive executive presence and often can be more influential than charismatic leaders who do not have the substance to back up their style.

While executive presence is intangible, it is also unmistakable - people "know it when they see it." Specifically, leaders regarded as demonstrating strong executive presence:

  • Project a professional image through appropriate dress, grooming, behavior, and language consistent with norms established and observed by successful executives within the company.
  • Convey an appropriate level of confidence and self-assurance grounded in an accurate sense of confidence in their capabilities.
  • Communicate with others in a clear, compelling, warm, and inclusive way that puts others at ease, wins others' confidence, and gains their buy-in.
  • Demonstrate emotional intelligence - strong self awareness that includes awareness of their impact as a leader and social awareness in understanding others' perceptions, motivations, and emotions.
  • Understand organizational dynamics and are adept at building and managing relationships throughout the organization.
  • Maintain composure and poise during trying or challenging circumstances; remain adaptable and flexible in response to uncertainty; and handle the unexpected with grace.

WJM Associates' Viewpoint on Executive Presence
WJM's research has shown that leaders that are viewed as role models for exceptional executive presence are consistently viewed as exceptional role models for several of WJM's Characteristics of Effective Leadership (read the full article), including:

Effective leaders are viewed as genuine and sincere. Their behavior is congruent - they walk the walk of their personal values and the values of the organization. As a result, they have high credibility and are able to inspire trust and motivate others.

Effective leaders are able to remain grounded in facts and make sound, defensible decisions in a timely fashion, while also involving others to gain their buy-in.

Strategic Acumen & Business Acumen
Effective leaders also gain credibility through their strategic business acumen - deep knowledge coupled with a broad viewpoint.

Effective leaders craft and communicate a vision with passion and clarity of purpose that inspires and motivates others to follow. They balance a sense of possibility with a sense of reality to ensure that their vision can be understood and implemented by others.

Effective leaders demonstrate genuine humility through a willingness to acknowledge and take responsibility for mistakes, and to admit what they don't know. They readily give credit for success to others, are unconcerned with protecting their own personal power, and do not seek the spotlight or need to be the center of attention. In describing this trait, Jim Collins (organizational effectiveness expert and author of Good to Great and Built to Last)refers to "the window and the mirror": Effective leaders look out the window to assign credit - to colleagues, external factors and good luck, while looking in the mirror to assign responsibility for poor results, never blaming others.

Coaching and Feedback
Effective leaders are continual learners who are focused on their own development and intentional about understanding their strengths and weaknesses. They are also generous and constructive in supporting others' development.

Why is Executive Presence Important?

Dedicating time and focus to developing and enhancing your executive presence can yield many benefits, including

  • Increased influence and persuasiveness
  • Increased recognition as leader in the organization
  • Increased commitment and buy-in from others to your goals and objectives
  • Increased ability to achieve results through others
  • Improved relationships

Developing Executive Presence
"Leadership at the front, mid and top lines alike is not innate. It is true some people have a huge head start. They're exceptionally clear minded. They communicate well. They're exceptionally persuasive. They look physically like a leader should, at least in the idealized Hollywood version. But the real skills of leadership at every level must be acquired in our lifetimes. There are no biological advantages. You have to learn those skills." (Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, Knowledge@Wharton, December, 2003)

Although many assume that leaders with executive presence are "born leaders" or "natural leaders," research has shown that leadership can be learned. Executive presence is, like many other essential leadership skills, easily observed but challenging to obtain. Executive presence can be developed and enhanced over time. Below are some suggestions for focusing on the development of skills and competencies that support strong executive presence.

Suggested Developmental Actions:

  • Seek feedback from trusted others or through assessment tools designed to measure key elements of executive presence, such as emotional intelligence.
  • Pursue targeted coaching or training to develop competencies identified as areas for development by any assessment tools.
  • Develop your presentation skills to enhance your ability to clearly demonstrate knowledge and command of information, by seeking out opportunities for speaking in front of small and large groups.
  • Supplement your knowledge on content areas through formal or informal learning or education to increase your confidence in discussing those topics in group settings.

Books on the topic of Executive Presence:

  • Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO, Monarth, McGraw-Hill, 2009.
  • The Intangibles of Leadership: The 10 Qualities of Superior Executive Performance, Davis, Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  • 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Exert Your Authority to Lead, John Baldoni, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Dixie Harper joined WJM Associates in 2010 as Vice President, Client Services & Operations. Dixie has over 15 years of experience in leadership development consulting, in roles spanning leadership, sales, and operations.

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