What is Executive Presence?


One of the questions I’m most frequently asked by clients is “How do I develop more executive presence?”. I usually respond by saying “what’s executive presence?” because, to be honest, I don’t think there’s any such thing. Now, it may seem a little contrary to start an article about executive presence by saying that I don’t think it exists but bear with me.

Over the years, I’ve met many leaders with presence but nothing about it seemed particularly executive. If they’d been doctors, teachers or airline pilots they’d have had the exact same air of self-possession about them. To me, the term executive presence is misleading. It implies that, in the great smorgasbord of presence varieties, there’s a suit-wearing, corner-office-inhabiting, nine-to-five executive type that, presumably, drives a BMW and makes a six-figure salary.

For women, the term is even trickier because, in my experience, it is somewhat gendered. I was recently asked by a VP at an investment bank to work with his team on presenting to senior management. While he was briefing me on each team member, I noticed that when he spoke about the men, he would say, “he needs to develop more executive presence” but when he spoke about the women, “she needs to develop more confidence”. A subtle but telling difference.

Presence is neither job nor gender specific

Presence doesn’t show up in a certain way depending on what you do. Barack Obama doesn’t have Political Presence. Cate Blanchett doesn’t have Actor Presence. And when Jeff Bezos gets on stage to reveal the latest Amazon initiative, he doesn’t have Entrepreneur Presence. They simply have presence.

Regardless of what you call it however, there is no doubt that if you want to move to a leadership position it helps to have it. And if if you want to have it, you need to understand what it actually is.


So, what is Presence?

Presence is notoriously difficult to define. People often describe it using words like charisma, magnetism or gravitas, none of which quite do it justice. For me, presence comes from a deep-rooted confidence that works from the inside out, not the outside in. Executives with presence are comfortable in their skin. They engage attention rather than command it and make their points assertively not aggressively. They have a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for and are clear about the unique contribution they make to the world around them. This enables them to be fully authentic in their interactions with others and, therefore, more able to influence, inspire and ultimately lead.

Developing presence is a long game. It’s not about learning a few power gestures or speaking with a deeper voice. It’s about self-awareness, self-control and a strong sense of intentionality in how you behave towards and interact with others. It works on three levels: physiological, psychological and situational.

Presence is the ability to be “present”

At its most fundamental, presence is simply the ability to be present. When your body is free of tension and your breathing is even, centred and rhythmical, your mind is clearer and more focused. (This is often described as being “in the moment”.) In this state, you’re less likely to get thrown off balance by nerves before an important presentation, for example, or by defensiveness when challenged in a meeting, or by stress when faced with too many tasks. It’s what leadership expert Dr Alan Watkins calls being physiologically “coherent”. In his work with the British Olympic rowing team and board members of global corporations, he uses rhythmical breathing techniques to help them manage stress and develop greater focus, ultimately enabling them to perform at a high level more consistently. As he rightly points out, it doesn’t matter how brilliant or accomplished you are, if you can’t stay focused and manage your responses in moments of stress, you’ll never be able to lead others effectively.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I able to stay focused on a task or am I easily distracted? Do I sometimes discover I’ve been going through parts of my day on auto pilot?
  • Am I distracted by repetitive or inhibiting thoughts? Do I sometimes find myself dwelling on something that happened or was said hours ago?
  • Do I have a strong sense of intention in my daily interactions? Am I aware of the effect I’m having on others?
  • How well do I manage my emotions on a day to day basis? How does this change when I’m under stress?

Presence is deep self awareness

At the second level, presence is about your sense of “self” – what some might call your character. It’s the personal traits that define you, as well as who you are from the standpoint of values, beliefs and purpose. It encompasses aspects of courage, optimism, integrity and discretion as well as concern for others. This is your foundation as a person. It doesn’t matter how capable you are in your role, if you’re unclear about who you are and what you stand for, you may not be seen as genuine or trustworthy. Or it might be difficult for you to maintain your authenticity while flexing to the requirements of your role. So, you need to not only clarify your personal values but behave consistently with them in your day to day interactions.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the key traits that define me as a person? What aspects of my personality draw others to me?
  • What are my values? Do I stand up for what I believe in? Do I consistently adhere to my values in my dealings with others?
  • How open am I in the way I approach situations and people? How authentic am I in my day to day interactions?
  • What is my unique contribution to the world around me? How do I bring a sense of my own purpose to my day to day activities?
  • What are my derailers? Which situations or people tend to throw me off course and how can I change my approach to them or prepare better for them in future?

Presence is managing the moment

A huge part of presence is the ability to understand and respond to the demands of the moment. Depending on the situation, there will be times when you’ll need to be a dynamic and energised communicator and others when you’ll need to be quiet and reflective listener. Some problems will require a directive response, others a collaborative one. When a leader responds well to the demands of the moment, they will be seen as decisive, confident and strategic, but also attuned to the needs and concerns of their stakeholders.

Your presence in the moment will also encompass elements like image, mannerisms and personal style – how you carry yourself and interact with those around you. Whether you like it or not, what you communicate about yourself, verbally and non-verbally, must be congruent with what people believe is appropriate for your role. If there is dissonance between how you are perceived and the expectations people have of you, you will be judged as ineffective.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I carry myself with a relaxed assurance? Is my body language open or closed? When I speak, do others listen? Does my voice convey intention, confidence and energy?
  • How do I make the people around me feel? Do I include others and make them feel valued and listened to?
  • Am I assertive in the way I communicate? How well do I handle conflict? Can I challenge without being perceived as aggressive? How well do I listen?
  • How effectively can I present my ideas and communicate a vision? Am I a good storyteller? Am I able to motivate and inspire others?

How do you develop presence?

You can’t change who you are but you can change how you are. You can work on breathing and mindfulness throughout your day, so you can manage stress and stay focused. You can work on clarifying your values, purpose and personal brand, so you can flex to the demands of your role while maintaining your authenticity. And you can work on developing your presentation and storytelling skills, so that when you speak, others listen.

This will, of course, take time. You can’t develop presence from reading a book – or a blog for that matter. But with physiological, psychological and situational mastery, you will gain the deep-rooted inner confidence that is at the heart of real presence – whether you’re an actor, an entrepreneur or a business person.


If you would like to develop your executive presence, maximise your personal impact or hone your storytelling skills, contact us about one of our leadership development or communication skills programmes.