The Hype Over Executive Presence

June 20, 2023

Tragically, too many of us have been taught that to get to the top in leadership we need to obsess on feeding our personal brand and cultivate the elusive quality and rarefied state of awesomeness we call “executive presence.” This idea has done untold damage to individuals, organizations, and the very concept of leadership. 

Executive presence relates to the ability to command a room, display gravitas, set an authoritative tone, project magnetism, and exhibit a host of other stylistics.

Those traits can be praiseworthy, but they’re not essential. What if you don’t have smooth, unflappable poise? What if you’re not straight out of central casting, not gregarious, and quite frankly, not very good at public speaking? Are you at risk as a leader?

In the business world especially, we tend to worship at the altar of platform skills and rhetorical power while often missing the more important issue of intent. Here is the paradox: I see angular, fumbling, scattered, and interpersonally clumsy leaders succeed in communicating effectively with their people--not because they are great communicators but because they speak directly to listener need out of a deep and transparent commitment to the concerns of other people. On the other hand, I also see polished and talented leaders cause a collective stupor when they open their mouths. 

When we think about leadership, we may be over-conditioned to look at the skills side of the equation. We may label as a skill barrier what is in fact a deficiency that resides in a deeper place--the place of intent. The implication is simple and yet profound: If you lack humility, all the skill development in the world will amount to nothing but window dressing. If your primary intent is to look good rather than be understood, you have it backwards. More skill can’t solve the problem. It’s the wrong corrective action for the root cause. Technique and stylistics will not get it done.

Here are four suggestions:

Show up as a giver.

When you approach people to communicate with them, assess your intent. Are you preoccupied with yourself? If you are unencumbered by self-interest, your message will travel with greater velocity and impact to the hearts and minds of those you lead. You will have more social capital to spend because you are earning more through the motivation to serve instead of the motivation to shine.

Meet people where they are.

Do not make people come to you. Reach out to greet them at their cognitive, emotional, and cultural starting points. Reflect deeply on what they care about. It will magnify your reach and effect because you have anticipated and can therefore speak more directly to the questions and challenges people have.

De-emphasize yourself.

Especially if you happen to hold a fancy title, de-emphasize yourself, not in role or commitment but in importance. In other words, eliminate those aspects of content and delivery that unnecessarily draw attention to you personally and therefore away from the substance of what you say. This is strong medicine for leaders who are struggling to change themselves from personal brand managers into better leaders. Rather than worry about the nursing of your image, ration your publicity. It goes back to the job you are commissioned to do--a job that must be powered by the trust and confidence you create in those you lead.

Use simple language.

Simple language refers to words and phrases that don’t need to be translated to be understood. Using simple language is a particular challenge for well-educated, insecure leaders who feel an unguided impulse to impress others with technical or business jargon. For example, it builds more intellectual understanding and emotional support if you say, “If we work together, we’ll get better results,” rather than, “If we leverage our synergies through collaborative effort, the value-add will make us more successful.” There’s way too much swelling business-speak out there. 

Again, strive to teach, align, and motivate. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said it well: “Self confident people don’t need to wrap themselves in complexity and all that clutter that passes for sophistication in business. Self-confident leaders produce simple plans, speak simply and propose big, clear targets.” 

Remember, the goal is to make yourself impossible to be misunderstood in both content and intent.

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