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Executive presence is an elusive but powerful attribute. Those who have mastered it command attention the moment they enter a room. It looks easy from the outside, but the executive presence is the result of careful cultivation.
Executive presence is typically found in high-ranking leaders, but it takes more than a title or rank to gain this influential attribute. There are many presidents and CEOs in the world, but few can match the presence of leaders like Ralph Lauren or Tim Cook, who wield disproportionate influence in the business world thanks to their cool and charismatic air.
What really is executive presence? We all already exude a certain presence, even if we are not aware of it. The way you dress, talk, write, and interact socially creates an image around you that your peers pick up on. Those with executive presence are intentional about their presence and carefully tailor it to communicate seriousness—that is, an air of confidence, expertise, grace under pressure, and decisiveness.
The question is: How do the greats do it? What follows is an exploration of how the most respected leaders have built their executive presence, with advice on how to build your own.
Related: Skip to content user profile image The 7 qualities of people who are highly respected
Step 1: Look within
The first step to understanding what executive presence might look like for you is to dig deeper into your motivations. Whether you want a stronger executive presence for practical, business, or personal reasons will influence your approach.
Get Clarity: The most influential people are masters at distilling and articulating a focused vision, value or passion. This communicates confidence and a sense of security to the people who follow you. The less you know about your mission, the harder it is to inspire others. In addition, authenticity and sincerity are keys to generating influence. If you’re unclear about your own motivations, people can sense it and won’t be willing to trust and respect you (but more on that later).
Find your starting point: Once you understand your motivations and are clear about your mission, take an honest stock of how much influence you now have. Don’t just gauge how many followers you have on social media or how many people report to you. To truly gauge your influence, pay attention to how often others seek support, knowledge, or leadership. Are your ideas picked up by your peers? Are you heard and quoted for your expertise?
Get guidance: With a better understanding of where you are, you can create a road map to where you want to go. To help inspire and guide you, choose a role model. Look for someone who started close to where you are now and built a level of executive presence that you admire. This could be a mentor figure in your life or a celebrity or business leader whose life story is familiar to you.
Step 2: Build influence
To cultivate a strong presence that influences others, understand what motivates the people you seek to impact. People inherently follow leaders who make them feel good, whether they feel safe, heard, or valued.
Communicate clearly: It pays to have a complete connection with the people you want to influence. Spend time listening and learning to communicate in the language of your followers. Effective communication makes others feel heard, seen, and understood, and makes you appear more charismatic, confident, and competent.
Use silence strategically: While effective communication is important to executive presence, there is a limit to how much you should share. It’s tempting to be heard all the time (to be “loud and proud” or “big and in charge”), but strategic silence may be a better path to an impressive presence. Reserve your voice for times when you have something meaningful to say. That way, when you contribute your opinion, people are more likely to listen to you.
Consistency is key: We cover getting clarity on your motivations. Once you know your values and goals, make sure you stick to them in real time. When people know what to expect from you, they feel safe around you. That’s why everything you say, post, write, use, and how you behave should align with your values and goals.
Take small steps: When it comes to building lasting influence, start with small steps. Executive presence is not built overnight. If your current level of influence is relatively low, don’t rush the process or expect to be in front of the stage tomorrow. Going too big too soon is seen as inauthentic and will alienate the very people you want to impress.
Related: How to Find Your Leadership Voice
Step 3: Understand your limitations
Although the executive presence they can cultivated, and these tips can help you achieve it, it’s true that this attribute comes more naturally to some leaders than others. Like many traits, it requires both nature and nurture. Some people are naturally charismatic leaders who can befriend anyone, while others are quieter leaders who prefer their own company.
Make it yours: Fortunately, executive presence can take many forms, and you can personalize it. Morgan Freeman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have vastly different energies and personalities, but they can both command a room. The key element they share is that seriousness: the quiet confidence they have in their own voice, unique knowledge and experience, as well as how they come across authentically. You can’t communicate executive presence unless you also feel confident in your voice.
Look at the nonverbals: Body language and image are the nonverbal aspects of executive presence and can explain much of how your message is received. People tend to trust what they see more than what they hear, and the goal is always consistency between verbal and nonverbal communication. Imagine if I told you that I was excited to work with you, while shaking my head from side to side. You would question my feelings and doubt my words.
Stay true to your nature: The important thing is that you stick to what is natural to you. If you’re not naturally charismatic, don’t try to put on airs. People can smell fake behavior from a mile away and instinctively won’t like you for it. Remember that consistency is important in everything related to image, voice and presence. If you can’t keep up a facade 24/7, don’t try at all.
Consider your personality and what comes naturally to you. Then feel comfortable, calm, and confident in the traits you already have. The more confident you are in your voice, the more powerful your executive presence will be.
Executive presence may be invisible and intangible, but it can greatly affect your career and legacy. A 2017 study from the Center for Talent Innovation found that executive presence accounts for 26% of what it takes to advance within an organization.
Ultimately, executive presence has the power to determine who is on stage and who is in the audience. Those who are intent on cultivating their presence will come to the front of the stage, make their voices heard, and potentially change the narrative.