Executive Presence: Why It’s an Essential Leadership Quality (and How to Develop It)

Jody Michael is the CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates, a boutique executive coaching and career coaching company based in Chicago, with coaches in Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco. Our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshops will help you explore the ways you might be standing in your own way. 

Imagine walking into a meeting where you’re going to deliver some tough news to your team. You expect pushback. You know you’ll have to come up with good answers to potentially tricky questions. You’re not exactly looking forward to it. And so, you enter the conference room at the last possible moment. Disempowering thoughts racing through your brain, you begin. The meeting goes south immediately, and you wonder how you’ll make it through the hour. You even wonder why you’re in this leadership role! Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon scenario, and maybe you don’t even have to imagine it; you’ve lived it! Now, imagine having to deliver that same news, but walking into the room differently. With executive presence. With confidence, not only in yourself but also in the way it will transpire. You let your team members know that their concerns are being heard. You provide thoughtful, authentic answers to those same tricky questions. As a leader, you know there will be rough patches — but you know how to address through them with finesse. If you were one of your team members, which version of “you” would you trust? Chances are, it’s the latter — the version of you that embodies executive presence.

Executive presence doesn’t magically envelop you when you become a leader.

What Exactly is Executive Presence?

Executive presence isn’t a skill or a characteristic, per se. Rather, it’s a quality. Transcending self-confidence, it reflects how you show up in the world. It incorporates not only what you say, but — perhaps even more importantly — how you say it. Beyond body language, it incorporates microexpressions, eye contact, and tone of voice. Even the clothes you wear impact your executive presence. When I was studying under Fernando Flores, my mentor and one of the earliest pioneers of executive coaching, he ran me through an exercise on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Fernando pointed at a 40-ish-year-old man in a dark suit and tie walking in our direction. My assignment was to create a story about what he did for a living and his socioeconomic background based on his gait, his clothing and how he carried himself. Next was a woman, wearing a fuchsia dress and dark sunglasses (even though it was cloudy) who rushed passed us. Per my assignment, I created story after story. Many of these passersby were kind enough to tell us if I was right in my assumptions when Fernando stopped and told them about the exercise. My first few attempts were off the mark — by a long shot — until Fernando coached me to notice the subtle nuances. To be fair, I learned how to judge a book by its cover. And to be realistic, it’s what people tend to do in everyday life, particularly when it comes to forming impressions of those in leadership roles.

3 Ways to Develop Executive Presence

Executive presence doesn’t magically envelop you when you become a leader. The good news: it’s a quality that you can develop rather quickly.

1. Cultivate awareness — One of the ripple effects of our ever-increasing lives is that we rush through our days and our interactions with others, failing to really notice the subtleties. Slow down and start to pay attention to the nuances. When you think of a strong leader — real or a fictional character on Netflix — what is it about their manner that exudes executive presence?

2. Fake it till you make it — The impostor syndrome thrives among leaders, especially women, who attribute their success more to luck than to merit. When you breathe deeply, adjust your posture — shoulders back, chin up — or maintain soft eye contact during a difficult conversation, you change your physiology, and are retraining your brain. By acting in a confident manner, you actually become more confident.  

3. Build internal alignment — True executive presence is rooted in how you perceive yourself. With your newfound awareness, identify areas you need to work on to develop greater trust in yourself, to achieve mastery or simply to feel a greater level of self-confidence. What are the thoughts that drive your moods and influence your behaviors? When you shift to a mindset characterized by positive — rather than negative — self-talk, the results can be game-changing.

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