Great Leadership: Executive Presence- A 2-sided Definition

When I ask people to define executive presence, they pause, and usually hold out their arms as they search for words. Eventually, after throwing out a few words like “strong,” “smart” or “gravitas,” they give me an example.

“You know, like President Kennedy.”

“…like Oprah.”
“…like my dad.”
“…like Sheryl Sandberg.”
“…like Rocky Balboa.” – believe it or not, I’m not kidding about that one. It becomes this indefinable, yet critically important thing. HR leaders lay awake at night wondering how they can get that wonderfully smart, high-potential associate to come across a bit differently so that they can promote her. But her reviews keep coming back that she’s missing….something.

Why is finding executive presence so stressful right now? Succession! Long-time leaders are looking over their shoulders and wondering, “Who is going to fill my shoes if I move up or on?” The U.S. is also one of the last nations to turn to diverse populations for leadership, such as women and minorities, and organizations and individuals need to deal with their discomfort around a “different” kind of leader. Great leaders don’t have to look or act like the leaders of the last century to be highly effective. If we’re going to fill the gaps, improve profitability and become global, we need to see executive presence in a very large way.

In working with highly capable executives over 14 years, I believe real executive presence can be defined. And it should also be entirely unique and authentic based on the individual, not based on a standard set by someone else. Here’s the definition:

Executive Presence is the ability to engender trust in people, through confidence, consistency and calm in chaos.

In turn, that presence will inspire people so that they are loyal, engaged and willing to give discretionary effort. 

The key to executive presence is trust. Can people trust you? Whether the situation is bad or good, are you fair, effective and worth following? The answer to that question all depends on behavior. You may have heard that actions speak louder than words – well, trust is built on every small action you do or don’t take for your whole life. Your team watches and works based on the level of trust they have in you.

How do leaders create trust? The first section of the definition describes the attributes that are consistently present in leaders who are considered to have executive presence, no matter what their style or personality:

–    Confident – People want to see confidence in their leaders. It doesn’t have to come across as braggadocio or arrogance, it can be quiet confidence, but we want to know that our leaders believe in and are aware of their strengths and capabilities. One who is aware of him/herself can also be aware of others – praising, developing and lending strength to a team. We want to know there is someone who will stand in the front and help us see the vision. For showing confidence: consider these three tips.

–    Consistency – We need to know what to expect! Clear guidelines, consistent behavior, and trustworthy action and reaction are critical to keeping a team on-track. Even when things go wrong, we want to know we can count on someone who is predictable and fair. Consistency in emotional behavior is also important. It’s not that we have to have boring leaders – executive presence can also encompass passion, anger and exuberance. But your team needs to have a pretty good idea of when those emotions will show up, and that there are good reasons why they do.

–    Calm in Chaos – Almost anybody can lead when times are good, but it is those who are calm, thoughtful and action-oriented during crises who embody executive presence. Whether they are losing a big client or facing a natural disaster, those who keep their wits and take action are the exemplary leaders we turn to when everything calms down. Have you monitored how you react to the unexpected? If you freak out and have to end up apologizing afterwards, you may want to consider ways to manage your nerves so that you can be in control of yourself, even when everything else is going haywire.

The second part of the definition “In turn, that presence will inspire people so that they are loyal, engaged and willing to give discretionary effort” describes the effect you create as a leader. Do people turn to you, trust that you will be fair, and feel calm and secure when you lead? If so, they will give back: creative ideas, energy, engagement, and discretionary effort.

And engagement is the holy grail of organizations. Keeping that talent, whether it be a workforce of 20 or 200,000, engaged and energized. That’s why your executive presence is a key part of your career. Don’t give HR an indefinable reason to hold you back. Show up confident, act consistently, and figure out if you can be calm in chaos. If you can do that – authentically and with your own style – you will have executive presence.

IWL_Speaker_HoughKaren Hough, Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, is a #1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post and recipient of the Stevie silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012 as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. Ms. Hough’s is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the US and internationally. Her company has a presence in five cities with a client list that includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Novo Nordisk and Turner Broadcasting to name a few. Ms. Hough trained and performed with Chicago’s legendary Second City, and is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. She holds board positions, volunteers extensively and lives with her husband and three children in Ohio.

*Don’t miss Karen Hough in Indianapolis on June 18th for IWL’s networking night “Improvisational Leadership!” Spots are filling up fast- Register Today!