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Executive presence is an elusive but powerful attribute. Those who have mastered it command attention the second they enter a room. It seems effortless from the outside, but executive presence is the result of careful cultivation.
Typically, executive presence is found in high-ranking leaders, but it takes more than title or rank to gain this influential attribute. There are many presidents and CEOs in the world, but few can match the presence of leaders like Ralph Lauren or Tim Cook, who wield disproportionate influence in the business world thanks to their charismatic, composed air.
What is executive presence, really? We all already exude a certain presence, even if we’re not aware of it. The way you dress, speak, write and interact socially all create a picture surrounding you that your peers pick up on. Those who have executive presence are intentional about their presence and tailor it carefully to communicate gravitas — that is, an air of confidence, expertise, grace under pressure and decisiveness.
The question is: How do the greats do it? What follows is an exploration of how the most respected leaders have built their executive presence— with tips on how to build your own.
Step 1: Look internally
The first step in understanding what executive presence might look like for you is to dig into your motivations. Whether you want a stronger executive presence for practical reasons, business reasons or personal reasons will influence your approach.
Get clarity: The most influential people are masters at distilling and articulating a focused vision, value or passion. This communicates confidence and a sense of security to the people who follow you. The less you know about your mission, the harder it will be to inspire others. What’s more, authenticity and sincerity are key to building influence. If you’re not clear on your own motivations, people can sense that and they won’t be inclined to trust and respect you (but more on this later).
Find your starting point: Once you understand your motivations and are clear on your mission, take honest stock of how much influence you have now. Don’t just evaluate how many followers you have on social media or how many people report to you. To truly evaluate your influence, pay attention to how often others look to you for support, insight or leadership. Are your ideas picked up by your peers? Are you listened to and cited for your expertise?
Get guidance: With a better understanding of where you are, you can create a roadmap to where you want to go. To help inspire and guide you, choose a role model. Look for someone who started close to where you are now and built a level of executive presence you admire. This might be a mentor figure in your life or a celebrity or business leader whose life story you’re familiar with.
Step 2: Build influence
To cultivate a strong presence that has sway over others, understand what motivates the people you seek to impact. People inherently follow leaders who make them feel good — whether that’s feeling safe, heard or valued.
Communicate clearly: It pays to have a well-rounded connection with the people you want to influence. Dedicate time to listening and learning to communicate in the language of your followers. Effective communication makes others feel heard, seen and understood — and it makes you appear more charismatic, confident and competent.
Use silence strategically: While effective communication is important to executive presence, there’s a limit to how much you should share. It’s tempting to make yourself heard all the time (to be “loud and proud” or “large and in charge”), but strategic silence can be a better path toward an impressive presence. Reserve your voice for times when you have something meaningful to say. That way, when you do contribute your opinion, people are more likely to listen.
Consistency is key: We covered gaining clarity on your motivations. Once you know your values and goals, make sure that you’re staying true to them in real time. When people know what to expect from you they feel secure and safe around you. That’s why everything you say, post, write, wear and how you carry yourself should align with your values and goals.
Take baby steps: When it comes to building lasting influence, start with small steps. Executive presence is not built overnight. If your current level of influence is relatively low, don’t rush the process or expect to front the stage tomorrow. Going too big too soon comes off as inauthentic and will turn off the very people you want to impress.
Related: How to Find Your Leadership Voice
Step 3: Understand your limitations
Though executive presence can be cultivated, and these tips can help you get there, it is true that this attribute comes more naturally to some leaders than others. Like many traits, it requires both nature and nurture. Some people are naturally charismatic leaders who can befriend anyone, while others are more quiet leaders who prefer their own company.
Make it your own: Luckily, executive presence can take many forms, and you can make it your own. Morgan Freeman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have very different energies and personalities, but both can command a room. The key element they share is that gravitas — the calm confidence they have in their own unique voice, knowledge and expertise, as well as how they show up authentically. You can’t communicate executive presence unless you get secure in your voice, too.
Watch the non-verbals: Body language and image are the non-verbal aspects of executive presence, and they can account for much of how your message is received. People tend to trust what they see more than what they hear and the goal is always for congruity between verbal and non-verbal communication. Imagine if I told you I was excited to work with you, as I shook my head from side to side. You’d question my feelings and doubt my words.
Stay true to your nature: What’s important is that you stick to what is natural to you. If you’re not naturally charismatic, don’t try to put on airs. People can sniff out inauthentic behavior a mile away and will instinctively dislike you for it. Remember that consistency is important in all things image, voice and presence. If you can’t keep up a façade 24/7, don’t attempt it at all.
Consider your personality and what comes naturally to you. Then get comfortable, calm and confident in the traits you already have. The more secure you are in your voice, the more powerful your executive presence will be.
Executive presence may be invisible and intangible, but it can enormously affect your career and your legacy. A 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that executive presence accounts for 26% of what it takes to advance within an organization.
Ultimately, executive presence has the power to determine who is onstage and who is in the audience. Those who are intentional about cultivating their presence will get to the front of the stage, make their voice heard and potentially change the narrative.