What is Leadership Presence and How Can You Develop It?

March 14, 2018 • 5 minute read • by Saeed


“Presence is more than just being there.” ~ Malclom S. Forbes

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of requests in my executive coaching practice for the development of what is called leadership or executive presence (EP).

It’s a hot topic. But what exactly is it and why does it matter?

Many of the articles that cover it define leadership presence as the ability to communicate and resonate effectively with your audience. These articles talk about the importance of having gravitas and charisma and espouse the virtues of being an extrovert. They talk about using body language, projecting your voice and using appearance to convey power.

To be sure, the ability to connect and engage with others in a way that is positive, impressive and inspiring is important. The ability to make a strong first and last impression has great value. But that’s only half the story. It’s only as they say, the tip of the iceberg. Actors also search for a strong “stage presence.” But rather than just a practice of technique, the best actors tap into their inner core to communicate their message to the outer world.

What preoccupies me is what’s below the water line, that is to say, the depth of character that gives rise to leadership presence. That is because for me, leadership presence has more to do with substance than with form. Leadership presence is about being comfortable in your own skin. It is a deeper archeology of who you are and how you show up in the world every day. It is from these depths that leadership presence emanates.

To demonstrate, let’s excavate.

Leaders are made, not born. First, is there such a thing as a natural born leader? That’s a complicated question and we can debate it for days. While there are certain personality traits and temperaments that are more suitable to leadership, the truth is that leadership can be developed, taught and learned. At the same time, leadership cannot be reduced to a set of strategies and tactics that automatically make you a leader when you practice them. For example, giving inspiring speeches is one of the qualities many great leaders exhibit. But if they don’t live the convictions they espouse, their rousing locutions are little more than empty rhetoric no matter how well delivered or how well constructed their sentence structures may be.

Leadership presence is about character. Character is such a central, important element of leadership that it should not and cannot be ignored in any discussion of leadership because character fundamentally shapes how we engage the world around us. If as a leader, people perceive your character as having serious defects, no amount of gravitas will save you. A key function in leadership is to engender trust in people. To do so, you must possess the character, competencies, and commitment to be a leader. Leadership presence is about exhibiting the values and virtues that embody leadership and the judgment to know when those virtues become vices in their excess or deficiency.

Leadership presence is about emotional intelligence. Self awareness, self regulation, social awareness, and relationship management are the hallmarks of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the engine that drives leadership presence. Like many things in life, the building block for leadership and leadership presence starts with self-awareness. Self awareness is the foundation of personal as well as professional growth. It starts with an acute awareness of your strengths and your vulnerabilities, but it is also a deeper awareness of your saboteurs, fears, and motivations. It is an awareness of how you see yourself and how others see you and an awareness of what drives you and what inhibits you. This awareness is crucial in the cultivation of leadership presence.

Leadership presence stems from your core. The source of leadership presence is rooted in your values, your purpose, your principles and your convictions. It is not a strategy. It is not a tactic. It is not swagger. It is not a front. It is an indelible impression made on you by your life experiences that you turn outward to the world. If you have lived an examined life, your ability to tap into this aspect of who you are and why you exist will be much easier. There is a correlation between how much you have excavated your own inner psyche and how confident you may be in your own skin as a leader.  Leadership presence is the ability to deploy who you are at your core against your leadership objectives.

Leadership presence is about congruence. Finally, leadership presence is what you believe and how you live what you believe every day. It is the authentic integration of what you believe with what you say and do. What comes out of your mouth should not be different than the actions you take or the behaviors you manifest. It is the alignment of your actions and words and the congruence between what you believe and how you act in the world that demonstrates who you are and your leadership character. Therein is the integrity that all great leaders demonstrate. If you are a lone wolf who demands collaboration, you are incongruent as a leader. If you are incongruent as a leader, those you hope will follow your message will see through this incongruence and will be unsettled by it. Ultimately, they will not follow.

A final word

While some might argue that presence is an innate quality, you can demystify the building blocks of presence and train yourself to strengthen our own engagement with audiences. Think for a moment about a person whom you consider to have remarkable leadership presence – someone you admire and respect. What qualities do they possess? What behaviors do they engage in? Were they born that way or did they learn along the way? We know when someone has it – and, on the flipside, we know when it’s missing. Leadership presence is not about power posing. Leadership presence is about self awareness first and foremost. This is followed by situational awareness and the emotional intelligence needed to cater your response to the person or circumstance at hand. If you start from the inside and work your way out, not only will you tap into your inner leader, but you will do so in a way that is authentic and lasting. Anything else, is an exercise in superficiality.

Good luck.

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©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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