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Executive presence is an elusive yet powerful attribute. Those who master it attract attention as soon as they enter a room. From the outside it seems effortless, but executive presence is the result of careful cultivation.
Typically, leadership presence is found in high-ranking leaders, but it takes more than title or rank to acquire this influential trait. There are many presidents and CEOs in the world, but few can match the presence of leaders like Ralph Lauren or Tim Cook, whose charismatic, composed demeanor wields a disproportionate influence in the business world.
What exactly is executive presence? We all already radiate a certain presence, even if we are not aware of it. The way you dress, speak, write, and socialize all create an image around you that your peers pick up on. Those with leadership presence are mindful of their presence and carefully adjust it to convey gravitas—that is, an atmosphere of trust, 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 leadership presence – with tips on how to build your own.
Related: Go to content user profile picture The 7 qualities of people who are highly respected
Step 1: Look within
The first step to understanding what executive presence could look like for you is to examine your motivations. Whether you want a stronger leadership 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 exudes 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. In addition, authenticity and sincerity are key to building influence. If you’re not clear about your own motivations, people can sense that and they won’t be inclined to trust and respect you (but more on that later).
Find your starting point: Once you understand your motivations and your mission is clear, take an honest assessment 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 really evaluate your influence, pay attention to how often others look to you for support, insight, or leadership. Are your ideas picked up by your colleagues? Are you being listened to and quoted for your expertise?
Get Guidance: With a better understanding of where you are, you can create a roadmap to where you want to go. Choose a role model to help inspire and guide you. Look for someone who started out near where you are today and has built a level of leadership presence that you admire. This could be a mentor figure in your life or a celebrity or business leader whose life story you know.
Step 2: Build influence
To cultivate a strong presence that influences others, you need to understand what motivates the people you are trying to influence. People naturally follow leaders who make them feel good – whether that’s feeling safe, heard, or valued.
Communicate clearly: It pays to be close to the people you want to influence. Spend time listening and learning to communicate in the language of your followers. Effective communication makes others feel heard, seen and understood – and you come across as more charismatic, confident and competent.
Use silence strategically: While effective communication is important for executive presence, there is a limit to how much you can share. It’s tempting to make yourself heard all the time (to be “loud and proud” or “big and in charge”), but strategic silence can be a better path to a commanding presence. Reserve your voice for times when you have something meaningful to say. That way, people are more likely to listen when you speak up.
Consistency is key: We’ve talked about getting clarity on your motivations. Once you know your values and goals, make sure you stay true to them in real time. When people know what to expect from you, they feel secure and safe around you. Therefore, everything you say, post, write, wear and how you behave should be in line 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 be on the podium tomorrow. Going too big too quickly will come across as inauthentic and will put off the very people you want to impress.
Related: How to Find Your Leadership Voice
Step 3: Understand your limitations
Although executive presence can are cultivated, and these tips can help you do that, it is true that this quality 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 quieter leaders who prefer their own company.
Make it your own: Fortunately, the 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 run a room. The most important element they share is that gravitas – the calm confidence they have in their own unique voice, knowledge and expertise, as well as how they appear authentic. You cannot convey the presence of the executive unless you also become sure of your voice.
Note the non-verbal: Body language and image are the non-verbal aspects of executive presence, and they can go a long way in determining how your message is received. People tend to rely more on what they see than what they hear and the goal is always congruence between verbal and non-verbal communication. Imagine if I told you I was excited to work with you, shaking my head from side to side. You would question my feelings and question my words.
Stay true to your nature: It is important that you stick to what comes naturally to you. If you’re not naturally charismatic, don’t try to get airborne. People can smell inauthentic behavior miles away and will instinctively hate you for it. Remember consistency is important in all things image, voice and presence. If you can’t keep up a facade 24/7, don’t try at all.
Think about your personality and what comes naturally to you. Then become comfortable, calm and confident in the traits you already have. The more confident you are in your voice, the more powerful your performing presence will be.
The presence of executives can be invisible and elusive, but it can have a huge impact on your career and your legacy. A 2017 study found by the Center for Talent Innovation that the presence of executives accounts for 26% of what it takes to make progress within an organization.
Ultimately, executive presence has the power to determine who is on stage and who is in the audience. Those who intentionally cultivate their presence will get to the front of the stage, raise their voices and potentially change the story.