Executive presence is crucial to effective leadership. Aspiring leaders may reject developing executive presence if they view it as inauthentic or an attempt to become someone they’re not. This perspective could not be farther from the truth. Executive presence is the observable result of stepping into our strengths, owning our depth of experience, and valuing what we bring to leadership to instill trust and confidence in the people around us.
How Do We Develop Executive Presence?
We develop and hone our executive presence by focusing on the fundamentals. Let’s break it down into three key components:
- Communicating Competence
- Engagement with Others
Mindset is how we think about ourselves, the world around us, and interactions between the two: Do we see ourselves as a leader? Do we believe we bring value to our role? Do we secretly believe we’re “faking it,” and fear others will discover we have no idea what we’re doing? Mindset impacts our confidence, and our level of confidence impacts our executive presence.
Confidence is something we can develop. It comes through successes and failures when we learn from those experiences: “Wow, I did a great job, and here’s what contributed to that success…” or “Huh! That failure didn’t kill me…I wonder what else won’t kill me?” Confidence is built through engaging in the world and running toward something we want, rather than running away from what scares us (unless what scares you is a charging alligator. Then run, run like the wind!). When we seek the intersection of experiences that both excite and scare us, that is where growth happens, and through that growth we build confidence.
Competence is also critical to executive presence and to our overall leadership. Even with a powerful mindset, we will not have an executive presence if people do not have confidence in our skills and abilities. However, it’s not just about having competence, but how we communicate that competence. Regardless of our personal style, there are deeper fundamentals we can leverage to communicate competence, both explicitly and implicitly.
Explicitly, we communicate competence through the ideas we bring to the table, how we respond to questions, and how we engage in discussions about the business, industry, etc. Implicitly, we communicate competence through our behavior and delivery. Physically, people who are calm and grounded appear more competent. They have a clear, concise message and tailor that message to their audience. Leaders with a strong executive presence do not appear easily flustered or overwhelmed. This is not to say they don’t sometimes feel those things, but there is a difference between our internal experience and our outward behavior. It’s the metaphor of a duck gliding serenely across the water while paddling like mad beneath the surface. This does not mean we should take an artificial “Fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Instead, author Timothy R. Clark encourages a more authentic, “Behave until you believe.” ( “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation,” by Timothy R. Clark.) When we breathe, slow down, and calm our mind, we help our inside experience begin to align with our outward behavior, and this allows us to improve how we communicate leadership.
Engagement with Others
Executive presence is not a one-way communication. We also communicate competence and confidence by how we listen to people, ask good questions, and seek to understand the knowledge and perspectives of others. Executive presence does not mean we always need to have the right answer, be the smartest person in the room, or make all the decisions. Leadership is a team sport, a synergy between a leader who serves their people, and the people guided by that leader. Without synergy, leadership does not exist. An adage, often attributed to John C. Maxwell, says “If you think you’re a leader and you turn around and no one else is following you, then you’re simply out for a walk.”
A Powerful Combination
Our executive presence is a combination of many factors, including internal mindset, communication of competence, and how we engage others. All these factors merge to create an executive presence that is unique to each of us. The most effective executive presence is not only achieved through our individual actions, but through the powerful interaction between us and the people around us. Our executive presence inspires others to have confidence in us as a leader, and that together we will achieve our goals.