Executive Presence

Executive Presence is about conveying a leadership image that commands respect and attention from others. How does a leader achieve this presence or gravitas?

Executive Presence

Executive Presence is about conveying a leadership image that commands respect and attention from others. Leaders who display this know how to react when confronted with challenging situations. They are calm and measured. Passionate yet deliberate. Engaging and focussed. They inspire their peers and subordinates. They are in control of themselves and assert their intentions. How does a leader achieve this presence or gravitas?

I spent an enjoyable five year period in my recent career as an independent executive assessor working with one of the world’s leading firms in this area. Assessments centres were conducted either at the firm’s London office or on location at the client’s office. The happy band of consultants would gather in the office early morning for a briefing. The client candidates would arrive and we would meet them over morning coffee. Then down to work. Each candidate had an office with PC, telephone and other office resources. The day would always be a stretch for the candidate – one or two levels up from their existing role. They would complete assignments and participate in role plays with the consultants playing different parts: an angry customer to be handled; a direct report to be coached; the boss to receive a strategy presentation. All very realistic. All very challenging for both consultant and candidate. As a consultant I would write up a comprehensive report to the assessment firm’s template and competency framework. Many assessments led on to coaching assignments, which was the part I relished.


Why am I telling you this? One of the tough competencies to assess objectively was called ‘Executive Disposition’, or as I describe it in my title for this article, ‘Executive Presence’. Or stated in another way, ‘Gravitas’. What is it? How do we assess it in ourselves and others? How can it be achieved by leaders?

About half way through my time working with the assessment firm I got call from my contact. “We’ve got an interesting assignment coming up for some senior executives and I’d really like you to work on this one Trevor because of your gravitas”. I thanked him and asked him – beyond my grey hair – what was this ‘gravitas’ he was seeking. He told me it was my calm, resolute demeanour he admired. I could hold my own and be forceful, credible and influential with senior executives. So I got the job.

My candidate for that particular assessment centre was David. Here is how I summarised in my report the way David achieved results through his people:

“David uses values, vision and business principles to communicate future plans and ideas to others. He does this on single issues one-to-one and on broader issues one-to-many. He recognises when others have opposing views, seeks to understand and accommodate them but is not distracted from his own conviction. He has authority and gravitas which gives confidence to those who deal with him. He cares about the business and how he can contribute to its growth and stability. David’s approach is calm and consistent. He is able to handle pressure or stressful conditions well and he is patient in dealing with others”.

I asked a tutor/facilitator friend of mine, Charlie, what he thought ‘Gravitas’ was in his professional field. He is an actor turned business person so his opinion is particularly relevant because he bridges acting and business in his current professional role for RADA Business. Here’s what he said. “My feeling about gravitas is that it’s something we worry about; feeling that ‘he or she has it and I don’t’. But gravitas is merely how we hold ourselves and about our relationship with space and time. We need to take our space and take our time. If we can do that then we can become compelling and confident communicators who show up with credibility and gravitas. Interestingly gravity is all about our relationship with the ground and someone with gravitas we might typically say is a ‘grounded’ person. They have a real weight to them. So this is all about how we use our voice and body in relation space and time”. There will be more from Charlie soon in an article he is preparing as a Guest Author on this site.

Key Principles

Finally I went back to a leadership training programme I used to run. There was a role play session about handling difficult conversations. I did a before and after demonstration from the front of the class. The participants then practiced in pairs and I did a wrap of their finding along with a set of key principles. OK, these were Difficult Conversations we were dealing with. They are often called Crucial Conversations or Moments of Truth. My contention is the way a leader behaves during a difficult conversation is the presence they always need to project. I believe as a leader you need to be straight-talking at all times. You make it very clear where the responsibility lies. My coaching example is not “Will you do this?” but “When will you do this?” It is also when you reinforce your position as ‘the boss’. You are assertive without being aggressive. You are rigorous without being ruthless. You hold firm without being inflexible. Remember, you are dealing with your direct report as an adult talking to another adult; not as a parent dealing with a child.

Observable Behaviours

Now let’s turn this into an observable behaviour. What does a leader do to demonstrate ‘Executive Presence’? Here are the key principles I used in my summing up for this training session:

Focus – Do not divert or allow yourself to be diverted. Do not make apologies for giving tough feedback or making challenging requests. Your leadership strength comes from your ability to concentrate.

Intention – Keep your mind and actions on your expected outcomes from any leadership transaction with your direct reports. Make sure you know what these are intentions are before you start a conversation. Your leadership strength comes from your clarity of purpose.

Calm – Keep a calm and measured voice and tone. Make sure your body language and mood are congruent with this calm and measured approach. Remain controlled under conditions of emotional stress. Remain calm and deliberate when confronted by work-related stress or by opposition from others. Your leadership strength comes from your composure.

Measured – Do not rush or garble your messages. Keep dialogue two way. Keep your language simple and direct. Speak with appropriate pace and inflection. Stay in command of the message. Be patient. Convey your ideas logically, simply and concisely. Your leadership strength comes from being deliberate.

Safe – Remain alert and politically astute to what is happening around you. Do not overreact to people and situations. Stay safe yourself and make transactions with others safe for them too. Keywords are trust, rapport and confidentiality.

Impact – Exhibit a personal presence. Convey an air of confidence so you instil confidence in others. Your leadership strength comes from how you command attention and respect from others.

You may have noticed whenever I create list in my blog posts I turn them back to you for comment and addition. Think of this list as a thought starter. Lists like this work best when you use them for inspiration and you take what you want from them. The magic sparkly bit is when you use your own experiences to add new ideas, post your comments and share with others. Thanks.

Further reading: RADA in Business – Executive Presence for Women

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Author: Trevor Sherman

Trevor Sherman: Author, Blogger and Coach. What do I do? I develop leadership training material and personal learning modules. I am the owner and operator of this Blog. I coach senior executives for their development and role transition. I am based in Northamptonshire UK and operate globally - in person and through technology.

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