There is a mysterious element of leadership—your ability to engage, inspire, and influence people—that frequently goes by the name “it.” You can call it charisma, I sometimes call it executive presence, but “it” always has a certain misplaced aura of magic.
Most recently I was asked about “it” by a global finance leader who called to request executive coaching. After years of accelerating through ever-higher leadership roles, her flight as an executive hit turbulence: “Your business skills are superb, your expertise in finance first-rate, your ability to lead others and collaborate with peers exceptional,” a superior told her. “But you’re missing the ‘it’ we need in our executive ranks.”
“What in the heck is ‘it’?” she wondered.
Tens of thousands of books have claimed to pin down exactly that one “it” that lifts great leaders out of the sea of mediocrity: from 6th century BC (think Sun Tzu’s Art of War) through classics like The Essential Drucker and contemporary works by leadership gurus such as John Maxwell, Warren Bennis and a past mentor of mine, Peter Koestenbaum. And then, when you find yourself taking this all too seriously, the search for “it” continues with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams’ Random Acts of Management and Fast Company’s Harry Potter spin-off, The CEO of Hogwarts.
From the serious efforts to the satires, squint your eyes and you’ll see that there’s something in common here. These attempts to identify the substance of great leadership seem to be seeking the same “it” as my bewildered finance leader. And, whatever “it” is, the seeds of it must be within us all. (Why else would so many thinkers write so many books—still trying to reach readers after more than 25 centuries?)
When the executive on the phone explained her situation further, I began to deduce that her missing “it” was what I call executive presence. Beyond management skills, knowledge of key subject matter, and professional networks, executive presence is that elusive quality that I believe often gives one leader an edge over others. It’s inherently subjective, and it can be hard to identify or evaluate… but when in the presence of executive presence, few people are blind to its enchantment.
Picture this situation: Gene steps to the podium to convince his company’s senior leadership team about how to restructure a business partnership. He is armed with a slick arsenal of PowerPoint slides and his brightly-printed shirt is, by fashion magazine standards, all the rage. And despite relatively solid ideas, somehow his presentation falls flat, he gets barraged with unflattering challenges throughout his spiel, and the team continues to berate him even after he has left.
Following Gene, Rodolfo shares his ideas on the same restructuring, receiving a much warmer reception. Compare the two presentations, their two ties, and even the merits of their two sets of ideas and the difference is not obvious. But put yourself in the shoes of that leadership team, observing both presenters back-to-back, and the difference was profound. They hadn’t even discussed what was ultimately Rodolfo’s advantage, at least not directly: Rodolfo revealed executive presence.
Though it seemed as if Rodolfo left his audience spellbound, I don’t believe he’s a magician. He simply exuded the confidence and poise to communicate his message with all of his vitality and being.
You see, executive presence includes the way a leader uses his or her personal being—not just air-tight logic, slick words, or presentation razzle-dazzle—to magnetically attract and influence the right people in the right situations at the right time. Management consultant Paul Aldo claims that three dimensions of personal being most influence your full presence as an executive:
- Personal – The passion, poise, and confidence that make up the substance of your internal character.
- Communication – Your ability to be honest, open to others’ ideas, and capable of connecting your thoughts with those of others.
- Relationship – The thoughtfulness, sincerity, and warmth which enable you to be interested in others and genuinely express your commitment.
When providing feedback about executive presence to current and emerging executives, I add two more dimensions to Aldo’s list:
- Wellbeing – Your personal stamina and energy: when nurtured, this becomes an unflagging river of endurance, carrying the momentum of your passion over the logjams of fatigue and stress.
- Wisdom – The sophistication to think broadly and deeply about challenges, and to bring forth—often out of others—transcendent, win-win solutions.
Total up these five dimensions and you begin to distinguish great leaders—those people with unquestionable executive presence. This list may not define “it” in the style of Sun Tzu, Peter Drucker, or even Dilbert, but the list sheds light on a fundamental realization: the “it” of great leaders is first about honing, optimizing, and nurturing qualities already within us all. Your executive presence comes to life through your personal being, giving you, as a leader, that unique “it” of authenticity, substance, and charm.
For coaching and training on how to empower your leadership through executive presence and wellbeing, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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