Defining Aspects of Executive Presence
According to a recent Hewlett survey of some 4,000 business professionals, executive presence is one of the top reasons for leadership success and consists of three main factors: acting with “gravitas,” communicating effectively, and looking the part. Others have cited a multitude of other traits and actions that, in their view, define this elusive quality of executive presence, such as an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes or to keep other’s engaged. On the darker side, some have even despaired that hard work and true accomplishments seem to figure so small in what oftentimes leads to promotion in the business world, supposing that executive presence is a superficial veneer totally disconnected from true leadership.
One way to define what we mean by “executive presence” is to see how it displays itself in various leadership roles, taken from all walks of life. Five aspects of executive presence observed in other arenas but applicable to the business realm are:
1. The Courageous, Confident General
From time immemorial to the most recent battlefield engagement, men have followed other men into combat whom they have found full of confidence and courage. When Julius Caesar, George Patton, or Robert E. Lee, or Ulysses S. Grant led their troops into battle, they did so determined to accomplish a specific objective, convinced they would be able to do so even against great odds, and willing to courageously sacrifice to secure the victory.
On the other hand, one of the great causes of blunders on the battlefield has always been overconfidence. The truly great generals always based their confidence on fact, not on mere feeling. Irrational cavalry charges without any infantry support, clinging to outdated weaponry while still “confident” it was sufficient, and embarking on campaigns that were obviously doomed to failure from the beginning all fill the pages of military history.
The business leader with executive presence will have a confidence based on the true potential of his organization and its staff. He/She will display courage and take risks when risks must be taken, but he/she will not risk all needlessly in foolhardy ventures. His/Her confidence and courage will inspire the same in others and contribute to his or her business’ success.
2. The Motivational Coach
Anyone who has been in or put his/her child into a little league, be it for baseball, football, volleyball, or any other competitive sport, will be acquainted with the benefits of good coaching and the ills of bad coaching. To train new recruits to master the sport, it is necessary to be straightforward and challenging, but to truly gain the respect of the trainee, there must also be evidence of humility and compassion. Humor also, done at the right time and in the right way, can help bring down defenses and make it easier to be honest without being insulting. Making fun of oneself is often key in that regard.
In professional sports, a good coach often makes the difference between victory and defeat. He/She raises team morale, makes a few key changes, and patiently works with his/her talent to develop it to its full potential. Business men and women sometimes find themselves acting much the part of a coach as they train new employees and re-train old ones for new tasks. Executive presence can make the difference between motivating your “team” and depressing them.
3. The Inspirational Professor
In an academic setting, professors who have mastered their subject matter and know how to present it well often inspire their students to enter new career paths and instill in them a love for learning that remains with them the rest of their lives. This takes some knowledge, intelligence, and insight, but it does not entail making a show of knowledge. The goal is always to communicate to the student the value of the knowledge itself and its applications in real life, not to simply show the student how much you know.
Business people too, when important, complex information must be learned by employees, may find themselves in the role of a professor. They may need to patiently explain and find ways to present difficult data in easy-to-understand form. Executive presence will make the difference between inspiring and educating your recruits and impressing them without benefiting them.
4. The Passionate Politician
Over the years, politicians have gained themselves a rather dire reputation. They are infamous for broken “campaign promises” and the ability to skillfully equivocate in order to please everyone while committing to nothing. However, statesmen like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were able to gain the hearts of voters, being passionate about their vision for the country, while avoiding the rank duplicity that politicians are so famous for.
A politician needs the ability to “connect” with voters, show he/she understands and cares about their situation, and lay out a clear plan for making things better. A businessman requires something of the same skill-set when “selling” a new idea to his clients, employees, or his employer. In the case of employees, their consent is not required like in an election, but without their believing in what they are doing, their work performance will likely be disappointing.
5. The Encouraging Counselor
Whether a pastor in a church office or a psychologist in a clinic, good advice and timely words of encouragement often keep people from giving up on life. In a work setting, managers can also take time to note the morale level of their employees and seek to encourage them to “fight on.”
While executives are not life managers over their employees, and proper bounds must be respected, acknowledging good work completed and believing in your employees’ ability to improve will pay big dividends.
While executive presence is a business term that signifies skilled leadership in the business world, it is wise to draw examples from other professions when attempting to define it. Executive presence can, with effort, be learned, and no one should assume it is impossible for him/her to achieve.