We see a tall person and we swoon
So said Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink.
He was referring to this startling statistic: In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent.
In the world of leadership development the question naturally arises: how does one cultivate a powerful executive presence? What is that je ne sais quoi we recognize as executive presence, and how do we develop it? As executive coaches we are presented with a conundrum: should we encourage all aspiring leaders to try to mimic or approximate a set of behaviors that are traditionally recognized as those that other people want to see?
The agreed-upon idea of executive presence is:
that set of postures, nonverbal signals, character traits, and social skills that send the “right message,” and that message is what the general population thinks is leadership
But what if we have a different temperament, character, style, and approach? What if our non-verbal signals and traits don’t match conventional expectations? What if we are, well, short? The fact is, executives are overwhelmingly white males… so does that mean we need to act, well, white and male?
There is no doubt that a strong executive presence has great potency-being able to send signals of confidence that engage and motivate people, signals that empower and communicate vision are all congruent with strong, impactful leadership.
But do we define exactly what those signals are, and then aim at them, hoping that we can hit the bulls-eye? Or do we work with our own “raw materials,” somehow find that congruence, communication style, posture, confidence in our own unique set of personality traits?
We think both. It is clear that conventional competencies like the confidence, clarity and the composure to connect with others is essential. However, we have also seen leaders with phenomenal executive presence with the capacity to communicate vulnerability, regret and doubt. We’ve seen leaders with great executive presence who display a willingness to ‘not know’ and ask others for help.
We see executive presence as the ability to shapeshift: to access and bring in those parts of yourself you need to successfully navigate and positively influence the diverse contexts within which you engage.
This definition emphasizes fluidity, but it doesn’t mean being flexible only, but flexible enough to sense and implement whatever the context demands. Sometimes the context demands taking charge. While other times you must be collaborative. Sometimes you must be cool and dispassionate and other times filled with fire. But in all cases, you are aiming to serve the greater good.
Executive presence is therefore a kind of executive awareness, an awareness of yourself, of the raw material you bring to your role, and of the context and knowing what’s needed in a given moment, and addressing it in your unique way.
In this way, anyone, not just designated leaders, who has mastered the ability to use their talents and style to engage and inspire others, while addressing the needs of a given context, has executive presence.
Interested in thinking and learning more about executive presence? Join us for our next Happy Hour on June 16th, where social media expert, Lisa Peyton, will be speaking on Building Your Executive Presence Online.