What’s the Difference Between Executive Presence and Leadership Presence?

Posted 04.23.2015

exec-draperThe title of this post is a question I was asked yesterday during an interview for the book summary service Get Abstract. (Audio excerpts from the interview will be available in a few months.) While I guess I’ve thought about the difference between executive and leadership presence over the years (I wrote a book on the latter after all), I have never had the question put to me that directly.

My answer was that, depending on the situation, executive presence can be a subset of leadership presence. As I unpacked my answer, the interviewer referred a couple of times to Don Draper of Mad Men as someone who embodies executive presence. As a fan of the show, I could see what she meant. No one wears a business suit better than Jon Hamm as Don Draper. When Don Draper is sober and in full pitch mode he embodies what the very traditional picture of executive presence looks like.

And that, in essence, is the difference between executive presence and leadership presence. The simplest distinction between the two is that executive presence is about how you look and leadership presence is about what you do. If you want to take it further, executive presence is about how you talk and leadership presence is about what you say when you do.

First impressions count so advice on executive presence often focuses on how one dresses, enters a room, makes eye contact in conversation and other behavioral nuances. The challenge with advising or coaching on executive presence is that one size doesn’t fit all. Every person is different; organizational norms are different and cultures are different. What works in one setting doesn’t necessarily work in another. As I wrote here earlier this month, it’s possible to have too much executive presence. If you’re too polished and too slick, you create distance. And the judgment on too polished and slick is in the eyes of the beholders. Because almost every leader is operating in a global context today (social media and web conferencing makes that the case even if you never leave your hometown), executive presence doesn’t travel like it used to.

Leadership presence, on the other hand, is much more portable. That’s because it’s about the people and not the leader. Taking the perspective of the leader, it’s about you, not me. As Harvard professor Dean Williams and I discussed in a recent audio interview on this blog, the most effective leaders use their presence to help the group identify the work to be done or the adaptive challenge to be overcome. They help set the agenda. They help organize the team. They coach. They ask questions that help people come up with their own answers. They encourage accountability. They celebrate success. They applaud effort. They help the team learn from failure, self-correct and move on. In all instances, the leader’s focus is on them – the people.

So, those are some of the distinctions I’m making between executive presence and leadership presence. What do you think? What’s the difference between the two? What’s the impact of one vs. the other? What have I missed?