What does ‘executive presence’ mean, anyway?

Posted 08.29.2008

One of my pet peeves in business is when no one stops to define commonly used words or phrases like "strategic" or "executive presence." The phrases are used as if everyone has a clear and common understanding of what they mean even though that’s almost never the case. So I was excited when my colleague, Kathy Reiffenstein of Professionally Speaking, recently brought to my attention an interesting study from the Center for Creative Leadership that calls out some of the specific components of executive presence.

Based upon interviews with over 150 executives, the study’s authors, Corey Criswell and David Campbell, focused in particular on six "image busters," or common mistakes that executives make that have a negative effect on their leadership presence. Here’s the slightly paraphrased rundown:

1. Too serious — Leaders don’t need to be serious to be taken seriously. A smile and some warmth are positive qualities for leaders.
2. Weak speaking skills — In a media-saturated world, people know a good speaker when they hear one. Executives need to focus on speaking as a process of continuous improvement.
3. Lack of clarity — Leaders who speak in vague, disjointed or rambling sentences confuse people. Take the time to shape your main points into a coherent flow before you speak.
4. Self-absorption — Leaders who overuse "I," "me," and "my" isolate themselves and cause their audience to disengage. Focus on "we."
5. Lack of interest — Dispassionate executives fail to inspire. True leaders must display energy, interest and passion for their work.
6. Obvious discomfort — Executives who are tentative or uncomfortable in their roles create doubt among others in their leadership abilities and effectiveness. Successful leaders need to be confident and use body language that shows they are relaxed and comfortable in their leadership role.

What would you add to the list of things that either build or damage executive presence? For my own list of what executives need to pick up and let go of, check out this downloadable summary on the home page of The Eblin Group web site.