Executive Presence And How To Cultivate It

Executive Presence is often assumed to be this mysterious and innate trait that only a few amongst us are born with. This misunderstanding discourages a lot of aspiring leaders, who have either received feedback  or themselves felt that  that they need to work on their leadership presence to move ahead in their career. However, at its very core, executive presence is a set of skills that can be learnt, practised and mastered like other leadership skills.

executive presence can be cultivated


When defining executive presence, people speak about charisma, star quality, x-factor, influence, gravitas, attractive personality, commanding attention etc. It is indeed all of these, but also much more. My favourite definition comes from the book Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar. They define executive presence as the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others

Can Executive Presence Be Developed?

You might receive feedback that to qualify for more senior positions, you must work on your executive presence. This feedback is usually meant to be helpful and encouraging. However it often has the opposite effect on leaders, who feel discouraged because of the following myths –

  • Executive Presence is charisma. You either have it or you don’t
  • Executive Presence is about stunning looks. You are either born with it or not
  • Executive Presence is about some mysterious x-factor. Luck determines whether you develop it or not

Fortunately, none of these beliefs is true.You can and you must work on your executive presence. At its core, it is a set of skills that anyone can learn, practise  and master. Of course, this requires the leader to learn new skills, replace entrenched habits and stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone.


The Three Pillars Of Executive Presence

As mentioned above, developing executive presence, requires working on specific skills and habits. There are different models of executive presence that one may work with. I find the model described by Sylvia Ann-Hewlett in her book Executive PresenceThe Missing Link Between Merit and Success most practical in application. According to Hewlett, the principal components (pillars) of leadership presence are:

  • Gravitas or How You Act
  • Communication or How You Speak
  • Appearance or How You Look

According to Hewlett’s research, gravitas is by far the most important determinant of executive presence. About 67% of the senior executives polled chose gravitas as the most significant factor. Communication is next (with about 28% of the votes) and appearance (surprisingly) only mustered 5% of the votes. So, in order to enhance your executive presence, you need to work on developing more gravitas, communicating more effectively and ensuring that your grooming, physical fitness and dress sense make the cut.

How To Enhance Your Executive Presence

It is certainly possible for anyone to develop and enhance their leadership presence. However, it would be a mistake to think it is easy. Working to enhance your executive presence requires work on knowing, doing and being. You need to acquire new and specialised knowledge, practise new behaviours that may feel strange and uncomfortable, get rid of persistent old habits and work diligently towards a new way of being. Much of this requires you to step outside your current zone of comfort and it is very easy to retreat to the safety of old and established patterns.

While there are a lot of books, workshops and voice/image consulting services, very few address the issue as comprehensively (knowing-doing-being) as required. A more holistic approach that I have used successfully with some of my clients involve

Starting with an assessment of your current level of leadership presence. Ideally this should involving some of your trusted colleagues, friends and family

Working on the knowledge and skills needed. Do not hesitate to engage specialists (eg voice trainers, image consultants) as required

Practising and perfecting your new skills. Work with a coach or accountability partner, who can create a safe space.

Addressing motivation, beliefs and self-doubt issues which you will surely encounter in your journey. Again, working with a good coach should help

Executive presence is not some mysterious either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t quality that many assume it to be. At it’s core, executive presence it is a set of skills that one can learn, practise and master. While not easy, it is possible to enhance your current level of executive presence. However,  you must be willing to put in hard work, replace entrenched habits and stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.


Image: US Army Africa via flickr

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Narayan Kamath

I'm a Leadership Coach and Mentor. I help successful leaders take their leadership to the next level. My mission is to make positive and significant impact in the lives of at least 100,000 people by 2020 - by helping them unleash their true potential to achieve greater success and fulfilment - at work, and in life.

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