Over the past decade, business writers have shown an increasing fascination with the concept of executive (or leadership) presence – that intangible personal quality that differentiates those with gravitas.
In a world where a command-and-control style is seen as at best unfashionable, the ability to exert influence informally through relationship and personal authority is becoming a prized characteristic in potential leaders.
Thirty-three professionals provided interview-based responses to a series of questions about executive presence.
Rather than ask people to provide a theoretical description of presence, those who took part in the study described real people.
The participants were asked to described four people who demonstrated presence:
- The first person that springs to mind as someone with presence.
- Someone who has a powerful presence that you did not initially think had presence.
- Someone who you thought had presence, but ultimately found that this was an illusion.
- Someone whose presence creates a strong anxious or negative reaction in those around them.
Interviewees nominated mostly men (71.5 per cent of the total of 123 nominees) as their exemplars of executive presence.
More surprising was that female respondents nominated men (75.4 per cent) more often than male respondents (66.7 per cent) – although the difference was not large enough to generate statistical significance with the relatively small sample size.
Writers in the area have characterised executive presence as a mixture of elements, most commonly expressed under one or more of the following headings:
- Authority-based presence.
- Performance-based presence.
- Trust-based presence.
The interviewees described characteristics under all these headings.
Their responses produced 10 characteristics: values-in-action, interpersonal behaviour patterns, demeanour, communications, intellect and expertise, interpersonal skills, outcome delivery ability, status and reputation, physical characteristics, and power use.
More than half of the responses focused on values-in-action; interpersonal behaviour patterns; and demeanour.
The bulk of the positive comments related to positive evaluations of values-in-action (integrity, respect for others, courage, and trustworthiness) and intellect and expertise (mostly commonly intelligence).
When asked why one would “not suspect such presence initially”, nearly half of the comments related to negative evaluations of demeanour.
Comments included that the person “lacked charisma”, was “introverted” and “reticent”, that he or she was modest and did very little self-promotion, and appeared unconfident or subject to self-doubt.
In contrast to ‘unexpected presence’, the leader with ‘unsustainable presence’ presented almost a mirror-image profile. That is, the impression-based characteristics were strong, but over time that presence was undermined by failures against the evaluation-based characteristics.
The interviewees described failures in values-in-action, interpersonal behaviours, and outcome-delivery ability as the most influential in the loss of presence.
The most common failures in values-in-action were in integrity, self-management and courage. These are strong comments considering the interviewees nominated these people as having strong (and positive) initial presence.
Interviewees had little difficulty identifying people with dark presence. Nearly three- quarters of their comments described dark presence as the product of negative interpersonal behaviour patterns and values-in-action.
The interviewees described what it was “about the person or your relationship with him/her that generated that anxiety in you”.
Their responses fell into four categories:
- Feeling off-balance or not trusted.
- Diminished or unvalued .
- Threatened or vulnerable.
If a definition of leadership is ‘causing people to act’ (in concert and in a particular direction), then a definition of leadership presence is ‘causing people to listen’.
The evaluation of whether a particular person has presence will vary from situation to situation and from audience member to audience member.
Presence also changes over time. It can be strengthened or weakened as audience members adjust their perceptions based on new experiences and information.
Presence is an essential component of effective leadership
An inability to exert influence beyond that conferred by authority would be limiting at best.
Although presence is a component of leadership, it is also a super-ordinate to leadership.
So what does all this mean in the real world? More importantly, how do we go about developing presence in our leaders?
This research offers two useful tools in leadership development:
- It provides a diagnostic language that goes beyond ‘I know it when I see it’.
- It provides a pointer to the most effective developmental approaches. A weakness in impression-based characteristics is essentially a skill deficiency.
Most of what has been uncovered in this research seems to make intuitive sense.
The findings provide a more structured way to understand executive presence. Yet the experience of someone with executive presence is not based in logic or mechanistic evaluation.
The evidence suggests that a response to presence is visceral rather than cognitive, that the evaluations are unconscious rather than conscious, and are based on emotion and belief rather than cognition.