Think of a great leader. It can be any leader—a historical political leader, an executive you look up to, a fictional character, or anyone else that inspires you.
What makes them great?
I bet I can guess a few of the qualities that stand out to you. They’re confident and calm under pressure. They know what to do in tough situations and lead by example. They communicate clearly.
Someone with these qualities has executive presence. A leader with executive presence “gets it.” They know how to lead.
This is the kind of person you want leading your company. And if you want to be that person, you need to develop your own executive presence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a born leader to be a great one. You just need to work at it.
Keep reading to find out how to develop executive presence so you can become the great leader your company needs to succeed.
What Is Executive Presence?
Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.
That's how John Beeson describes executive presence in “Deconstructing Executive Presence” on HBR.
While that gives you an idea of what executive presence is, it’s not exactly a clear definition. Gerry Valentine says "it’s your ability to inspire confidence—inspiring confidence in your subordinates that you’re the leader they want to follow, inspiring confidence among peers that you’re capable and reliable and, most importantly, inspiring confidence among senior leaders that you have the potential for great achievements."
And Suzanne Bates told Fortune that it’s “the ability of the leader to engage, align, inspire, and move people to act.
”It’s clear that there’s no single definition of executive presence. But there are some commonalities between these definitions. Executive presence requires
- leadership skills—to get people to take action;
- confidence—and enough of it to inspire it in others;
- willingness to act—to tackle hard problems head-on; and
- communication skills—so you can engage employees and spur them to action.
Much of executive presence comes down to that last point, communication skills.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re constantly telling people how great you are. Most of the time you’ll communicate your executive presence through how you act, how you approach problems, and how you treat both people and the running of your business.
All of that is highly theoretical. Executive presence isn’t something we can nail down. But we can talk about practicing it.
How to Practice Executive Presence
How do you “do” executive presence? What habits and qualities will you need to put in place to inspire others and lead your company to success?
Here are four pieces of advice to keep in mind. They’ll help you practice executive presence:
Understand Your Value
Knowing the value you bring to your company brings together your confidence and your authority. When you don’t know the unique value you bring to your company, you’ll struggle with imposter syndrome.
You’ll engage in a lot of negative self-talk and doubt yourself at every turn. That doubt sabotages your effectiveness as a leader, even if you’re able to act confident (we’ll talk about that shortly).
Keep reading to discover some exercises you can do to understand the value you bring to your company and use it to create self-confidence. And keep this point in mind as you’re reading the rest of this article.
Improve Your Confidence
Executive presence is about leading other people. But many descriptions of executive presence start with self-confidence.
You won’t convince others that you’re a great leader until you convince yourself. But don’t worry—even if you don’t have a great deal of self-confidence right now, you can still develop a powerful executive presence.
To start working on your self-confidence, check out Zen Habits’ “25 Killer Actions to Boost Your Self-Confidence.” It walks you through actions like visualizing success, dressing well, acting positively, and other ways to develop self-confidence.
Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language is a great resource, too (and one of the best videos about executive presence):
Own Your Authority
This is a tough one when you’re starting to work on your executive presence. Especially if you haven’t been an executive for long. In many cases, you need to start acting like an executive before you feel comfortable as one.
Allison Kruger has a great story about acting out executive presence:
For example, I’m not good with numbers. I was at a new job overseeing a department of 70 people, and they called me in and told me everything I would be doing, and then they told me, “You’re going to also have to do the budget.” And I said, “No problem.” But when the meeting was over, I went into the stairwell and started hyperventilating. I thought about all the things I could do specific to my talent, and there I was focusing on the one thing I was going to be uncomfortable with. I was hyperventilating and crying, and I was a wreck.
But then I calmed myself, went to my department assistant and said, “Who is the person who deals with expense reports?” I found that person and asked if she had worked on budgets, and she said yes. I said, “Tomorrow we’re going to set aside three hours to work on the budget,” and she said, “No problem.”
Kruger went from hyperventilating in the stairwell to a sense of control. And all she did was use the authority of her position to get help.
It’s not easy to start acting on your authority. But you have it, and you earned it. People trust you to make these decisions. Use that trust and the power that comes with it to become a better leader.
Executives are starting to realize the value of mindfulness (we’ll talk about a few of them a bit later on). Mindful leaders are more effective in their leadership, and they can both improve and make better use of their skills and qualities.
The benefits of mindfulness go beyond the walls of your company. If you can integrate mindfulness into the rest of your life, you’ll see benefits in everything you do. And that helps develop executive presence, too.
Being mindful of how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and what you’re about to say is valuable because it helps you make the most of every situation. That’s a powerful characteristic of the world’s best leaders.