Executive Presence: Time to Rethink the Archetype of Invincibility

At the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics last month, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui won a bronze medal in the women’s 100 meter backstroke. But what she’ll no doubt be known for, even beyond her swimming ability, is her refreshingly frank and transparent style. When asked by a television interviewer about her disappointing finish in the women’s 4×100 meter relay, the 20 year-old swimmer said she was tired after the race, and attributed her lackluster performance to the fact she got her period the day before.

And with that simple statement she smashed two taboos at once: a taboo for women to talk publicly about their periods, and also a taboo for athletes to openly discuss their weaknesses. What pressures are upon them that they aren’t allowed to share? What other stresses do they feel unable to voice: fights with partners, disabilities like asthma, anxiety and nervousness, conflicts with teammates, difficulties with coaches?

As we watched the interview with Fu Yuanhui, we saw an analogy for leadership, specifically, for what has come to be known as “executive presence.”

Close your eyes, and ask yourself: What is executive presence?

What comes to mind? Chances are, you saw something like the following: tall, perhaps silver haired, white male, with a patrician manner, maybe around 60 years old.

Or maybe you saw a woman. But chances are, it’s someone very composed, with an aura of invincibility. The problem is, this style of leadership reflects a very narrow slice of humanity, in just the same way that the image of “athlete” calls to mind a muscular, strong, self-possessed hero. Definitely not someone like Fu Yuanhui who smiled, giggled, cried, and goofed around on the podium with her teammates.

It’s time to examine our inner images of leaders, athletes, and role models of all kinds. Do we want to keep perpetuating the myth of the superhuman leader who doesn’t show vulnerability, who isn’t transparent with her flaws and foibles? We think not. It’s bad for us in many ways: it represents and supports a homogeneous style of leadership and it also forces us to marginalize our full humanity. There are times when being stoic and tough may be just what the doctor (or Wall Street) ordered, but there are other times when that style is lethal. We may think we’re ninjas and can hide our true (mortal) selves—but it isn’t so. When leaders put on a tough façade when they actually feel scared, they lose credibility. People can see through it, and it doesn’t inspire trust. However, leaders who learn to admit mistakes, ask for help, or say things like “I think you can do this better than me” engender trust and followership.  They don’t waste time playing political games of one-upmanship and they don’t jeopardize their organizations by hiding mistakes or refusing to ask for help.

So if the archetype of the silver haired, strong-jawed patrician has over-stayed his welcome and utility, what is a useful definition of executive presence?

In our minds, “executive” calls to mind the idea of executive function, your cognitive control and superior reasoning. It means having detachment, not taken by the swirl of events, pressures, and inner and outer conflicts. And “presence” means staying present, being aware and being yourself.

That’s precisely what’s missing when we strive to emulate a model, an archetype: our presence. We leave ourselves behind, and instead, try to approximate a way of being that may have nothing to do with our authentic selves.

Authentic doesn’t just mean being yourself, or speaking your truth, or expressing emotions. Authenticity means using your unique qualities and gifts in the service of your role, and context. It means contextually appropriate uniqueness.

And that is executive presence: you are present, in your leadership role, present to what’s happening, and present in yourself. You’re not emulating the archetype of invincibility, nor are you overly focused on your own responses and emotions, which is what we typically think about when we think of authentic. No, it means being true to yourself AND accountable to the context. That is true presence. Doing what the role requires, in a way that doesn’t leave yourself behind. Like art, your deepest self is expressed within the constraints of the medium. In this case, the medium is your role. And just like art, no two people will do that exactly alike. That is the beauty—and future—of executive presence.

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