by Steve Adubato, PhD
Executive presence is a funny thing. For many, it’s hard to define or someone tells you that you don’t have it and you don’t know exactly what they are talking about.
But even if executive presence may be hard to define in a way that we can all agree, it’s like many things in life and in leadership. You know it when you see it.
It has a lot to do with how you carry yourself. Do people notice you when you walk in the room? Not because you are loud or obnoxious, but rather because you carry yourself with a quiet confidence and a sense that you know that you have something to contribute.
But beyond having strong body language that includes good posture, direct eye contact, and having your body in sync with what you are saying, another piece of the executive presence equation involves using language that is strong and unambiguous. Readers of this column know that I have a pet peeve with disclaimers or qualifiers that ultimately produce tentative communication. Phrases like, “It seems to me that we might be able to accomplish this goal if we possibly…” You get the idea. When someone communicates in this fashion, it equals poor executive presence. Instead, strong, clear language like “What we need to do to accomplish our goals includes A, B and C..”
Executive presence also requires that you communicate with passion, energy and a sense that you believe what you are saying and can stand behind your words. I’m not talking about being overly emotional or engaging in hyperbole. You don’t need to be Richard Simmons conducting an exercise class in an infomercial to demonstrate passion. (Even thought there is nothing wrong with that.) But rather, you must have vocal variety in your presentation. This is produced when you tap into what you are feeling in connection with your message. I’m not simply talking about what you are thinking, but rather what is going on a deeper, more visceral level. If you don’t believe in what you are saying, how do you expect anyone else to believe it?
Sometimes it is easier to demonstrate “executive presence” when thing are going well. Yet I say you find out what real leaders are made of and what kind of executive presence they have when things are not going well. Consider the case of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. After the Super Bowl in which his team lost to the Packers, he must have been down and dejected. All of that work and effort to come up short in the biggest sporting event in American culture. But Tomlin made no excuses and didn’t point the finger. He didn’t hide. In fact, Tomlin praised the Packers and communicated in no uncertain terms that it was a fair fight and the better team won.
When he was asked a question in a post game press conference about losing certain star players to injuries leading up to the Super Bowl, he said, “We had injuries. They had injuries. We had a plan. They had a plan…What I will do is say is Green Bay played a pretty good game and made the necessary plays to be world champions.” Tomlin’s head was held high in defeat. He faced the tough questions. That’s executive presence—being strong in the face of adversity. It’s never what happens to you in life that ultimately decides your fate. It’s how you deal with it and respond. Leaders like Mike Tomlin only bolster their public reputation and brand when they demonstrate executive presence under pressure. It is a lesson for all of us who lead whether it is on the football field, in the boardroom or at a regular weekly meeting. Executive presence isn’t an option, it’s a leadership and communication requirement.