“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”—Warren Bennis
As this pioneer in the field of contemporary leadership studies explains, there are skill sets you can learn to improve your leadership capabilities. And one of the qualities you might cultivate as part of your overall development is your leadership presence.
Leadership presence, or executive presence (EP), is a term that may not be clearly defined. But having this "X factor" quality may determine if you're able to command your audience, whether it's in the boardroom, factory floor, speaking engagement or simply walking into a room. The ability to connect and engage with others in a manner that is authentic, while at the same time being positive and inspiring, may have great value. In turn, this may increase your value as a leader. In essence, leadership presence typically entails being well-rounded and comfortable in your own skin—no matter the setting. It's a quality that often makes the people around you feel just as comfortable, putting them at ease, so they can be receptive to what you have to say.
While some people may be naturally outgoing, this doesn’t automatically make them a great leader. Rather, it's the combination of many different qualities, learned and inherent, that may make for a leader with an executive presence everyone sees.
One of the best definitions of leadership presence I've found is from Gavin Dagley, researcher, executive coach and psychologist: “A person with executive or leadership presence is someone who, by virtue of the effect he or she has on an audience, exerts influence beyond that conferred by formal authority.”
As Dagley notes in his research, effective leadership can cause people to act. Effective leadership presence can cause people to listen.
So what are the qualities that make for great leadership presence?
Albert Mehrabian, psychology professor at UCLA, says we are perceived in three ways:
- 55 percent visually (body language)
- 38 percent vocally (tone of voice)
- 7 percent verbally (spoken words)
Being physically comfortable may go a long way in radiating the right presence. If you are fidgeting and not in control of your body, that may detract from the message you're trying to deliver. Keeping your posture straight when sitting or standing without a hunched shoulder may speak volumes. And physical fitness can help give you control over your body. With resistance and aerobic training, you might help improve your posture and stamina as well as your confidence.
Along with body language, although superficial, appearance can greatly determine the way people perceive you. Human beings are visual. Right or wrong, we often make our initial judgment based on what we see. Being well groomed and dressing the part may be very important. If that means hiring a stylist, it may be well worth the investment.
Your demeanor is often based on how confident you are. Remaining calm and composed and exhibiting self-control may exude the confidence people are attracted to. The demeanor of leaders may be displayed in many ways, including charisma, dignity, big personality and sense of authority. These are all traits that may be improved with the right training.
Intellect and Expertise
If people in your field are impressed with your intellect and expertise, they may be more likely to gravitate toward the message you're delivering. It may also be just as important to know a little about a lot outside of your area of expertise. This might allow you to engage with more people. Having confident conversations about different subjects is a great quality. Some of the best ways to accomplish that may be by reading, learning, taking up hobbies and staying on top of current events.
After the initial physical assessment, the words that come out of your mouth may be scrutinized to determine whether you're worth listening to. Having great intellect is all fine and good, but it also helps to speak in a way that makes people want to listen. In the research performed by Dagely, the ability to construct messages in a clear, convincing and appealing manner and being articulate with compelling narrative can be essential. Additionally, the quality of voice used and the ability to make yourself heard may also make an impact. Consider taking voice lessons and engaging in presentation training to make your voice worth listening to.
This received the biggest response, according to Dagely's research. Being genuine, courageous, trustworthy, tenacious and tough-minded, along with having an optimistic and positive outlook, may have a great impact on leadership presence. These qualities can be acquired through lifelong experiences, but if developed early, they can be mastered.
Interpersonal Behavior Patterns
The ability to relate to people by being warm and authentic may help leaders build relationships. Whether it is with an employee or a client, if the right connection is not made, people may not want to work with, or make a deal, with a person they can’t relate to.
Words to describe these skills include eagerness to engage, charm, seductiveness, apparent sincerity, quiet wit and friendliness. Although similar to interpersonal behavior patterns, interpersonal skill is not used to build a relationship, but to engage with people in different settings. The central interpersonal skill, according to Dagely, was based around active listening.
Ability to Deliver Outcomes
Characteristics that assure outcomes include strong decision-making capabilities, the ability to be flexible and the energy to get others to deliver. These are qualities responsible for sustainable leadership presence.
Correct Use of Power
When power is used without integrity, or as a demand for compliance, it might result in having a dark presence. Leaders might consider using their power wisely, with all the positive character traits essential for having leadership presence so that everyone can stand behind it.
Status and Reputation
This may be responsible for assessing a leader’s presence in the beginning, but it can be unsustainable. The initial presence someone was able to win, based on previous achievements, may only be as good as the actions they follow through with in their new position.
There are many measurable qualities that define leadership presence, but it's not a cookie-cutter mold that everyone can jump into. Each new leadership position brings with it challenges. The merry-go-round that C-Suite executives jump in and out of may be proof that being a CEO doesn’t automatically mean you can do the job.
By developing your leadership presence with positive qualities you might use in your personal and professional life, you will hopefully be ready when the time comes to take that leadership role with confidence.
Read more articles about leadership skills.
A version of this article was originally published on October 9, 2015.