How to Gain Leadership Presence


How to Gain Leadership Presence

“We convince by our presence”

Walt Whitman

Leadership presence can be defined as the ability to portray the most essential leadership qualities. People with leadership presence communicate effectively, connect with others, act confidently and decisively, and perform well under pressure. 

Leadership presence is not something that you acquire with a leadership job title. In fact, many of us could think of at least one person who is not in a position of formal leadership and yet who has a strong leadership presence about them.

“How you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication), and how you look (appearance) count for a lot in determining your leadership presence”, according to  Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. The good news is that all these components of leadership presence can be learned because leadership presence is a skill and not a personality trait.

Based on his research, Dr Gavin Dagley defined presence as follows: “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”. 

He identified the following three main domains of leadership presence:

  • Values / character – having strongly held ideas and values that align with those of their teams or other groups;
  • Relating / engaging – building and genuinely valuing relationships, and respect for individuals in their teams or other groups;
  • Responsibility / delivery – being (and being seen as) strong and capable of leading their teams or other groups to achieve important and inspiring goals.

Dagley argued that, leaders with the strongest presence score high in all three of those domains, but it is still possible to have powerful presences with real strength in only one or two of those areas, provided the negative or weaker areas do not completely undermine that strength.

He also pointed out that the ability to produce long term presence has more to do with “who we are” rather than with a narrow behavioural set, and that improving sustainable presence must go beyond skill development. This means that “the skill-based behaviours must be underpinned by strong and inclusive beliefs and values, coping skills that are functional and effective in the high-stress world of senior leadership, and the ability to self-manage one’s defensive responding.” (Dagley, 2013)

It can be challenging to evaluate our own leadership presence and how others perceive us. However, there are some tools which can help. As a starting point, you can undertake this free self-assessment of your own leadership presence and then use this free assessment with a few trusted people you work with.

Reflect on the results of both assessments and commit to building on your strengths to further enhance your leadership presence. 

According to a leadership coach Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead, you can develop your leadership presence by carefully considering your answers to the following questions and by taking appropriate actions to address the areas for development which they will help you to identify.

  1. Do you communicate clearly? Goman advises people to consider using the “hand-heart-hands” formula by focussing on facts, data or information you want others to understand; emotions you are aiming to evoke; and action steps you want people to take.

Also, reflect on your speaking skills:  What is the pitch of your voice? How fast or slow are you speaking? What impact does this have on your listeners? What kind of sentence flow, vocabulary do you use? Aim to eliminate “filler” words (such as “um”, “uh”, and “so”) when speaking. Aim to be concise and focused so that you don’t drown your audience in too many words.

  • Do you speak with conviction? Ask yourself: Are you able to transfer information to and from others in an intentional, influential, and honest way where you and others feel safe and heard? What are your values and beliefs as a leader? How do you translate them into your words and actions? Leaders with conviction are not afraid to acknowledge that something is out of their control or when they made a mistake. They are confident in their ability and the ability of their teams to find the right solutions to the most challenging problems.
  • Do you use storytelling? “People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves,” says Goman. “Stories give facts meaning.” Storytelling is inspiring people and motivating them to support you. Stories create connection and relationships between leaders and their audiences; so learn how to be a good storyteller.
  • Is your body language congruent with what you are saying? Does it project both power and empathy?  When it does, you have a “winning combination for being perceived as confident, influential and caring,” according to Goman.  

Reflect on your body language: Are you tense, closed and constricted? Or open and welcoming?  Are your physical movements calm and reassuring, or small and agitated? What are your most typical facial expressions? You can ask somebody to film you when you are presenting or leading a meeting so that you could use this video to work on your body language.

It is useful to know that, when we change our posture to a power pose (shoulders back, hands on hips), we feel more powerful because our testosterone actually increases and people perceive us as more confident. This TED talk by Amy Cuddy will show you how to use power poses to your benefit.

  • Do you dress for success? If you want to be perceived as a leader, you must look the part. It does not have to be an expensive suit at work. Simply make sure that whatever you wear reinforces people’s perception of you as a polished and competent professional. Yes, I hear your cries that it is superficial. However, we, humans, evolved to make swift judgments about each other based on appearance, so pay attention to your grooming and clothing. 
  • Are you composed under pressure? Dealing with high pressure situations is part of leaders’ job descriptions. Good leaders exhibit self-control in the situations when all eyes are on them and everyone is expecting them to lead the rest out the trouble. How well are you equipped to deal with this challenge? How can you develop your composure and resilience even further? 

When under pressure, take slow deep breaths. This encourages your body to stop releasing stress hormones, allowing you to relax. Practise mindfulness – it can help you to regain a sense of calm and focus your attention on things that matter. Think who can help and support you when needed. Check out these useful tips from Brian Tracy.

  • Do you inspire others? Goman pointed out that inspiration is at the heart of leadership presence. Good communication, integrity, inclusion, sensitivity to the needs of others and genuinely caring about people are just some of the characteristics of inspirational leaders. Do you have these characteristics? How can you enhance them even further? Who are the leaders who inspire you? Consider how you can role model them. Also, check out this article about qualities of people who practice inspiring leadership

Belle Linda Halpern, author of Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire added a few more suggestions for those who aim to develop their leadership presence:

  • Build rapport through communication – identify your communication style, develop strong listening skills, aim to create an open and honest dialogue. In this way you will create a rapport with people so that you could influence and inspire them.
  • Lead with confidence and compassion – pay attention to how you think and feel, how you come across to others, and how you can use it to promote collaboration. Learn how, not only project confidence, but to feel it! It is necessary to allow others to trust your capabilities and for others to feel your trust in them. True leadership is relational – focus on building positive relationships with people around you so that they want to support you.
  • Manage difficult situations with grace and confidence – learn how to handle difficult conversations, manage conflicts and don’t be afraid of making difficult decisions. Ask yourself: Can you be assertive without being harsh? Can you show authority without an authoritarian attitude? Think what you can do to improve your skills in this area.

And remember: leadership is a choice and so is leadership presence. Chose to work on yours to create the right balance of competency and humanity which reflects your knowledge, abilities, values and aspirations. 

A good executive coach can help you achieve this goal.