Executive Presence and Our Range as Leaders

December 21, 2019

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

by Dave Bushy

In recent years there has been continuing focus on the concept of “Executive Presence.”   Like so many aspects of leadership, the definition is elusive and agreement on what it looks like even more difficult to pin down. 

Is it a matter of style, substance or even body language?  And is it just one thing?

In order to explore it a bit more, perhaps we should begin with removing the modifier “Executive,” and just use the word “Presence.”

Most of us would agree with the simple premise that presence is how we present ourselves to others.   And it also is how others see and experience us.  It follows that we must first present ourselves to have presence and we cannot have presence until others experience us.  It takes at least two people to connect to each other in order to feel it.

In my review of literature on presence, a number of common themes occur.  For instance, most cite body language.  Ashley Cobert advises that you be “Polished, Poised and Prepared.”  She also notes that you should work to “Make others feel special,” including truly listening to what they have to say and effectively inviting them into a discussion.

Her advice is sound.  The person that rushes into a room frenetically may inadvertently send a signal that is confusing to others.  That person may also not listen and to be prepared to engage with others. 

Whenever possible, it is so important to be prepared and ready when you enter any situation. 

And yet we have all known leaders who are always a bit late or perhaps a little rushed.  When they enter a room they still command the respect of others.   Somehow, they establish a presence.  The question is, how?

Edwin Nevis in “Organizational Consulting,” has some very perceptive thoughts on presence, most of which coincide with the current literature, yet also include something very different:  Range.  A human being is not just a list of attributes, but a range of capabilities and possibilities.  By understanding more about ourselves and being curious about what we incorporate into that range, we open up to the boundary of change – built upon our own intentions.  Always being curious about what one is seeing and experiencing helps us gauge our own presence.  And it also opens up the options for choice in our lives.

When we walk into any situation with another person or a team of individuals, we actually enter a system.  Each individual contributes to being part of that system and it has its own attributes.  Presence is what we bring into the system and how we interact with it.  Nevis rightly notes that embodying presence requires “staying in the here and now,” and “to gauge and embody the appropriate amount of space for the task at hand.”   Both attributes require not a fixed approach to every situation, but a range of possibilities.

Perhaps one of the most critical foundational aspects of presence is respect for oneself and others, just as Cobert rightly notes.   And Nevis adds: “To separate what you observe from what you think it means.”  To me, that indicates leaving judgment at the door.  He also encourages us to be open and attentive and bring receptivity into our range of capabilities.

There are a host of other attributes in the literature and in Edwin Nevis’ work, including being bold, flexible and assertive as the situation – and the system – might dictate.

Presence is not just one list of attributes, but a range of behaviors and ways of being. Staying in the present moment – fully – allows us to calibrate our metaphorical size, our style and our behavior to meet the situation.  We can then enter into that room with a way of being that meets the needs of the others and helps us establish that very real human connection that defines – and jointly creates – what we have come to call presence.

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is a former senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry. 

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