In the ever-evolving landscape of corporate leadership, the concept of executive presence has undergone a significant transformation. No longer is it merely about projecting a commanding aura; it’s about authenticity, relatability, and genuine connection.
As an executive coach working with seasoned leaders, I’ve witnessed this shift firsthand- first as an employee and now as a coach. In this article, we’ll explore the redefined definition of executive presence, focusing on why it starts with knowing yourself and how you can exude it effectively and authentically even in the face of resistance.
What is Executive Presence and Why is it Different Today?
Executive presence, once synonymous with a polished exterior and a firm handshake, and widely attributed to showing up like the leader we were used to seeing (i.e. a tall, white man with a commanding voice and dominant presence) now delves deeper.
When I was in undergraduate school, I remember my business strategy professor saying that the majority of CEO’s were tall, slender caucasian men and if we wanted to ascend to that level, that was the image to strive for. The problem was, I’m not tall. And I’m not a man. However, I didn’t let his limited interpretation deter me. I filed it away as a datapoint and over the next 20 years, I saw the corporate world start to shift in the way it looked and operated.
The space for more diverse leaders has never been more open and accepting. Is there still work to do to improve diversity in senior leadership? Absolutely. But one of the gifts of this changing landscape in the workplace is the ways in which leaders exude executive presence has fundamentally shifted. In fact, the Jack Welch approach of the past, which was largely considered the executive presence model of the 1980-90’s, is no longer sustainable.
Today, executive presence is about the ability to inspire confidence, influence others positively, and navigate complex challenges with grace. In today’s fast-paced, diverse, and digitally connected world, executive presence is not static; it’s adaptive. Leaders need to be agile, open-minded, and culturally intelligent. The modern executive is relatable, approachable, and empathetic, qualities that resonate profoundly with today’s workforce, particularly post-pandemic.
Why Authenticity is Integral to Executive Presence
Authenticity forms the bedrock of executive presence. It’s the genuine expression of your values, emotions, and aspirations. Authentic leaders create a culture of trust and psychological safety within their teams, fostering innovation and collaboration. In the context of executive presence, authenticity means being true to oneself while adapting to various situations. Authentic leaders are comfortable with vulnerability, admitting mistakes, and seeking feedback, making them approachable and inspiring (although, be cautious around the vulnerability piece if you are a women- this can still be a double-edged sword).
Doesn’t sound like Jack Welch, does it? However, his leadership style, one that largely influenced how we used to think about executive presence, is still thought of today while we have four generations in the workplace– with baby boomers and GenX still predominately holding the c-suite spots (although millennials are coming in hot). That means that if you show up differently than what this generation believes executive presence should entail, you may face covert or unconcealed signs of resistance to your style.
This is why becoming innately aware of your triggers- and how you respond to adversity and signs of resistance to your approach- is incredibly important as you think about your executive presence.
Do you question yourself when you face resistance? Do you lash out or shut down? Or do you anchor to your strengths and values and continue to shine on is a respectful and commanding way?
After all, liking and respecting yourself is THE key when looking to exude executive presence long-term.
Lessons from the Past that Still Apply to Executive Presence
One of the hallmark books written about this topic in 2014 is called Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. In this book, she outlines that executive presence rests on three pillars:
- How you act (gravitas)
- How you speak (communication)
- How you look (appearance)
A lot of this still applies today. However, if you look closely at these three pillars, you’ll notice that the determining factor as to if you succeed or not is the filter your evaluator is using to judge you. If their filter is only trained to accept a tall, Caucasian man as the ultimate model of executive presence and you weren’t born into that particular category of humankind, one might fall into the trap of thinking they can never live up to expectations.
My experience doesn’t confirm this interpretation.
What I have learned is that resistance to a new archetype of leadership does exist consciously and unconsciously. There is no doubt that we still have a long way to go as it relates to gender equality and diverse representation in the workplace, especially at the top. (To fully understand the gender gap, read this new groundbreaking research by Nobel Economics prize winner Claudia Goldin).
Interpretation of your approach still matters. After all, at the end of the day, we are all human and humans use judgement to navigate the world around them. This is a biological response that helped us survive as a species from the beginning.
Humans also use quantitative and qualitative data to make decisions about promotions. And guess where that qualitative data stems from? You got it- human judgement and interpretation. Which we know from research is riddled with systemic racism and limitations about what a leader should look and sound like.
As frustrating as this may be, the core human instinct to assign judgements colored by assumptions, interpretations, and limiting beliefs is not going to change. So don’t waste your energy getting mad at how humans are wired.
Instead, focus on what you can change.
What you can change is the way you choose to show up and how you choose to respond to resistance in a way that doesn’t compromise your executive presence. How you respond to adversity and resistance is the ultimate test of your executive presence. Your goal: handle it in a way where you remain cool, calm, and collected without buckling to a popular view that you do not share. Instead, state your unique perspective intelligently, calmly, and with conviction…. and own it without putting others down.
So how do you determine what your version of executive presence looks like in a way that fits your unique background, strengths and experiences to date? Start with uncovering what authenticity means for you.
Conveying Executive Presence While Remaining Authentic
Balancing executive presence with authenticity requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Understand your strengths and limitations, lean into your strengths and acknowledge your limitations without belittling yourself. Authenticity doesn’t mean showcasing every emotion unfiltered; it means being aware of your emotions and responding thoughtfully. Listen actively, show empathy, and acknowledge diverse perspectives. Leaders who exude executive presence while remaining authentic are inclusive, fostering an environment where everyone feels heard and valued.
To crystalize this even further, and turn it into tangible steps that can help you develop your executive presence, read on.
How to Exude Your Own Version of Executive Presence
1. To start, reflect on your own experiences on the receiving end of leadership
Think about that leader who tried to motivate you through fear and by ignoring or dismissing your needs. How motivating was that for you? It probably incited you into action but it also likely left you feeling pretty drained and prompted thoughts about leaving. And maybe a lot of venting and drowning your misery in more alcoholic beverages than you care to remember.
On the flip, think about a leader who let you navigate your projects as a thought-leader and provided positive reinforcement and support where needed. That leader was likely really inspiring, left you feeling good inside, and led to some of your best work. Your personal life may have positively benefitted as well and you may have been living your best life at that time. That leader is also likely one of the images you see when you think about motivating leadership.
The key to this type of reflection is to notice what stood out about the experience you’ve had with past leaders and how it influenced you. What can you learn from those positive and negative leaders to help you reflect on how you want to show up and model executive presence?
Also, think about what worked for you as it relates to how leadership was portrayed and its appeal to your senses.
What does inspiring leadership:
- Look like?
- Sound like?
- Feel like?
All of this matters as you think about how you want to embody executive presence, both outwardly and inwardly. Although I’m not suggesting that you stray from your roots, I know many leaders who worked with speech coaches to help them eliminate an accent that may have been distracting from the message they wanted to deliver.
2. Identify your strengths, limitations, and values
Once you’re clear on the vision and leadership style you want to emulate, it’s time to spend some time getting to know yourself better by acknowledging and appreciating your strengths, limitations, and values.
- What are your strengths?
- What are your limitations or things you don’t like to do (and admittedly, don’t do very well)
- What is unique about you that people recognize and enables you to be effective at your job and in life?
- What are your top values and how well do you honor those in your current chapter?
3. Identify your triggers and replace destructive responses with empowering ones
You will be tested on this executive presence journey- especially if you don’t fit the “norm” of the past face of leadership. You may even face resistance if you look like the face of leadership past- as some people may assume that you will model the patriarchal model that kept equality at bay.
Whatever identity you resonate with, acknowledging and understanding that you will face resistance and being ready to respond in a way that lets your best self-shine is key.
4. Surround yourself with a support system
There are going to be days on this journey that you’re just going to feel frazzled and DONE. When those days come, have an established support system around you who understands the journey you are on and can provide comforting and reassuring words to help you weather the storms until you regain your strength. This support system is also a group you can turn to when you need to make key decisions that will change the trajectory of your future.
Embrace Your Authentic Executive Presence
Exuding executive presence starts first with belief in self. In order to solidify a deep belief in yourself, you first have to know, and appreciate, all that you bring to the table. Even if it looks different than those around you. Then, you can develop your authentic approach to executive presence.
In the journey toward authentic executive presence, remember this: it’s not about being flawless; it’s about being real. Your vulnerabilities make you relatable, your empathy makes you approachable, and your genuine passion makes you inspirational. Also, don’t expect things to be smooth sailing. If you don’t already look and act like the stereotypical senior corporate leader, expect adversity along the way, examine your triggers, and prepare yourself to respond in a way that honors the way you want to show up.
As you navigate the complex terrain of modern leadership, let your authenticity be the guiding light, illuminating the path for both you and those you lead. And never lose belief or confidence in the person who is most important on this journey- YOU. Once you’ve got your firm firmly planted on the ground, use your insights to teach the next generation so that together, we can redefine a definition of executive presence that promotes inclusion and diversity.