Executive Presence: The Latest Fad?

Christopher Witt —  May 19, 2017

CharismaIn public speaking and leadership development circles, the phrase “executive presence” is all the rage. But what is it? And does it matter?

No one quite agrees on what executive presence means.

It’s been called “the wow factor,” which merely substitutes one ill-defined concept for another.

It’s been likened to gravitas, charisma, and dynamism, which are equally fuzzy concepts.

It’s assumed that you’ll recognize it when you see it.

People with executive presence are described as having the ability to

  • Quickly gain people’s attention and respect
  • Exude confidence, poise, and calm under fire
  • Influence and inspire others as much by who they are as by what they  say and do

Everyone agrees that executive presence is a desirable quality in a leader.

And every leader or inspiring leaders wants it.

Forbes cites a study that concludes “executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to get promoted.”

Executive presence matters mostly in business circles.

We don’t apply the term executive presence to politicians — Churchill, Kennedy, Reagan, Thatcher, or Obama — or to religious leaders — the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, or Billy Graham — or to humanitarians and reformers — Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk. (We call them charismatic.)

I’m not sure why.

Executive presence is culturally defined.

What passes for executive presence in certain cultures — being bold, self-assured, strong — may be judged by other cultures as conceit and arrogance.

And in American business circles, white, successful men in positions of authority are more frequently judged to have executive presence than others.

Executive presence is about character and appearance.

Our character — our values, disposition, talents and abilities, core beliefs — matters. And our appearance — how others perceive us — matters.

We are the message we communicate or, more precisely, people interpret what we say through the lens of how they perceive us. That’s why authenticity is most frequently associated with executive presence.

Of course, appearances can be — often are — deceiving. People can project an image of themselves that is completely out of sync with who they really are. (Con artists do it all the time.)

The goal, I suppose, is first to be a person worthy of people’s attention and respect and then to present your best self through your physical presence, gestures, and voice.

In my own executive speech coaching practice, I tend to other matters first — who you are as a leader, how you can best serve others, what you want to achieve and why it matters to you — before focusing on how you present yourself. But that’s just me.

What do you think?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.