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Executive Presence: 10 Ways to Become a Charismatic Leader

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Executive presence describes the dynamic personality and skill set of charismatic CEOs and other business executives. While some may think this type of high-level leadership is an innate ability, it’s a skill that anyone can build!  

Here’s the best news:  You don’t need to be an executive to cultivate a memorable executive presence. Developing your executive presence now can help you get on a career fast track.

Here we will define what executive presence is, its profound benefits, and 10 tips to become a more effective leader with executive presence.

What is Executive Presence? (Executive Presence Definition)

Executive presence is a blend of people skills, character traits, and dynamic leadership capabilities that allow someone to act decisively, communicate clearly, and confidently lead a team or company. Leaders who can captivate a room (seemingly without trying) embody this presence and easily earn people’s trust with their impeccable integrity and character. 

People with executive presence are charismatic, inspirational, and memorable. They are emotionally intelligent in social situations and always remain graceful under pressure. They have a noticeable talent for bringing people of all backgrounds together to achieve collective goals.

Benefits of Executive Presence

At its core, executive presence describes how people view you and their willingness to follow your direction as a leader. Developing this skill can profoundly impact your career trajectory or bottom line if you are a business owner or manager. 

The benefits of having an executive presence include: 

  • Higher productivity: The most productive and high-performing teams are led by people with core executive presence traits like collaboration, open communication, and strong decision-making skills.   
  • More team engagement: Studies show that more than 50% of an employee’s perception of their workplace has to do with the influence of their manager. Leaders with executive presence inspire confidence and independence in their employees. When people trust and admire their manager, they tend to feel more engaged at work and intrinsically motivated to do a great job. 
  • Stronger company culture: Company culture is a highly-ranked companies‘ secret ” sauce. A successful leader knows how to create a positive workplace culture of teamwork, productivity, and open communication.  
  • Lower turnover rates: Over $11 billion is lost annually due to employee turnover. Strong leadership skills keep employees around even through tough times.  
  • Less managerial stress: Leadership has a trickle-down effect. Executive presence helps streamline communication and processes so that management at all levels can confidently direct their teams. This results in less stress and tension in their daily lives.
  • Professional and personal growth: Executive presence doesn’t only radically improve the workplace and your career trajectory. Developing these skills can catalyze personal transformation to help you become the best version of yourself

The 7 C’s of Executive Presence

Executive presence might seem elusive. Surveys from the Human Capital Institute (HCI) show that over 50% of HR employees think executive presence is difficult to define, yet 80% say they recognize it when they see it. 

So let’s break it down so we can learn its elements. Executive presence is the quintessential mark of high-level leadership. 

Our research has narrowed executive presence to 7 traits that set these leaders apart from the rest: 

  1. Charisma: What do Martin Luther King Jr., Dwayne Johnson, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and Oprah have in common? They are undeniably charismatic leaders with influential personalities. They have a magnetic charm and a unique ability to arouse loyalty and enthusiasm in their followers.
  2. Confidence: Confident people naturally command attention because they can make others feel assured and secure. Executive presence requires feeling emotionally safe in yourself and firmly believing in your abilities as a leader. Rather than being arrogant or pretentious, leaders with executive presence have a quiet confidence that doesn’t require proving themselves. 
  3. Competence: People with executive presence know their line of work like the back of their hands. They are masters in their field of work and practice daily to improve their skill sets. 
  4. Composure: Top executives have mastered the art of maintaining their poise when under pressure. Research shows that emotional hiccups (such as overreacting, becoming defensive, taking something personally, or revealing stressful behavior) can significantly harm people’s perception of you as a leader. This doesn’t mean you have to “have it together” all the time. Instead, you can control your emotions in public and deal with other issues in private. 
  5. Conviction: Leading with executive presence requires speaking and acting with conviction. These types of managers are strong decision-makers who communicate with conciseness and boldness. 
  6. Command: Delegating tasks and efficiently leading a team of any size is no simple feat. Executive presence requires a firm grasp on skills like leading meetings, assigning tasks, public speaking, and giving direction. 
  7. Character: Character refers to an executive’s core values, ethics, and internal beliefs about the world. Those with a solid executive presence have high levels of integrity and emotional intelligence, which make it easy for others to connect with them and trust them. 

10 Tips for How to Develop Good Executive Presence

Some people may appear as natural-born leaders. However, research conducted by the United States Air Force Academy and The Institute for Level Six Leadership at the University of Kansas clearly shows that executive presence can be acquired and developed like any other skill. 

Here are 10 actionable ways to improve your executive presence for higher-performing teams and a more authoritative demeanor. 

#1 Read and use body language 

Understanding body language is one of the most underrated leadership superpowers.

This doesn’t only involve decoding the body language of others but also using your body language and visual appearance to command a magnetic presence. For example, you can:

  • Practice confident posture: Roll your shoulders down and back to straighten your spine and slightly expand your chest for a more confident appearance.
  • Show your palms: Open hands are perceived as more trustworthy because they signal you have nothing to hide.  
  • Smile less (or only when it’s authentic): Research shows that smiling too often or giving a fake smile can lower your perceived prestige and social status because it looks like you’re trying to appease others. Instead, only display an authentic smile when you’re genuinely excited or impressed by employees’ performance.

Action Step: Review these Powerful Body Language Hacks for Successful Leaders and start to practice them in your daily life. Watch this video for a quick breakdown of the key body language cues of a leader:

#2 Improve your self-confidence 

People naturally want to follow those who exude confidence and grace. In a survey of 268 senior executives, over 75% said that confidence, gravitas, and “grace under fire” contributes to executive presence. If you don’t have an unshakeable belief in your abilities, how do you expect others to trust in your ability to lead? 

In the short term, you can hack your confidence simply by looking more prideful with the body language tips described above. However, developing true confidence requires a long-term commitment to self-care and personal development. Try:

Action Step: Learn How to Be More Confident: 11 Scientific Strategies for More Confidence and follow this guide on How to Build Rock-Solid Self-Esteem in 8 Weeks (or less!).  

People are less likely to follow someone whose voice is quiet or shaky. Speaking with confidence instills a sense of power and assuredness that others can trust your guidance. 

Here are a few ways to improve your vocal power:

  • Start on a good note: Research shows that your vocal first impression can matter more than what you say afterward. A simple “hello” in a happy, positive tone can make people more likely to trust you. 
  • Notice your tone and volume: For better or worse, people tend to view those with lower, louder voices as more authoritative. Women who speak in a softer tone and slightly louder volume are more likely to be perceived as more dominant and decisive than their high-pitched counterparts. Regardless of gender, find a vocal inflection that makes you feel powerful and practice it in the mirror before speaking to your team. 
  • Find your maximum resonance point: Your full resonance point is the vocal range where your voice sounds the richest, most relaxed, and decisive. This video covers the best technique for finding your most confident voice and how to use it to your advantage as a leader:

Action Step: Learn more about How to Speak with Confidence and Sound Better by reviewing our top evidence-based tips and practicing in front of a camera (for your eyes and ears only). You can also check out the section on vocal power in Vanessa Van Edwards’ bestselling book, Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication

#4 Cultivate self-awareness

Self-awareness is like looking at yourself from a birds-eye-view and understanding why you do certain things. It is an essential trait of a great leader because it allows them to stay humble and open-minded. 

“Self-awareness gives you the capacity to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. It enables you to keep growing.”

—Lawrence Bossidy, author, former CEO of AlliedSignal, and executive at General Electric 

Rather than berating yourself for small mistakes, you can become aware of quirks and habits you want to improve. 

Action Step: Regularly journal about your actions and analyze why you do things in certain social situations. For example, if you notice yourself quickly agreeing with others rather than expressing a differing opinion, you might be pleasing people rather than speaking up for yourself.

  • Create a Success File of all the tasks, moments, or accomplishments that make you feel like your best self. Use this to build your confidence and make more empowered decisions in the future.
  • Create a Failure File of the moments, tasks, and weaknesses you wish to learn from. Failures are just as empowering as successes if you commit to learning from them! 

#5 Practice clarity in your communication 

Executives with a powerful presence use concise communication to get straight to the point. They avoid overly wordy sentences that make them sound hesitant or unsure of themselves. 

Action Step: Record yourself giving a speech or talk and tally up how many times you use unnecessary words. Then, slow down and record again as you work to eliminate filler phrases such as:

  • “Like”
  • “Umm”
  • “Actually”
  • “In a sense”
  • “You know”
  • “Kind of”
  • “Sort of”
  • “In the event that” 
  • “What I mean” 

Action Step: Stop apologizing or justifying your ideas. When you have something to say in a meeting or a presentation, deliver with confidence. And try not to qualify in your emails. Avoid these phrases:

  • I want to share something, but I am not sure if it’s right
  • I’m sorry, can I say something?
  • Sorry to bother, but…

#6 Maintain composure with deep breathing

The art of composure is no simple task. Humans tend to stop thinking logically when under immense pressure. 

Stress activates the amygdala (the ancient part of our “lizard brain”) and sends our brains into “fight-or-flight” mode. As we enter this survival state, the prefrontal cortex (the complex decision-making part of the brain) shuts down, which means it’s hard to think logically and act rationally. 

But those with executive presence know how to hijack this cascade and keep their cool. 

“When times are good, a CEO should remain poised and composed. When times are difficult, a CEO should remain poised and composed.”

—Judy Smith, CEO of Smith & Company

If you want to be poised and graceful under stressful situations, regulating your breathing can tremendously transform your ability to act thoughtfully rather than impulsively react

Action Step: Learn the box breathing method to calm your nervous system and feel more composed during intense situations. Begin by slowly inhaling through your nose as you count to 4, hold your breath at the top for 4 seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat as many times as necessary before speaking to your team, making important decisions, or reacting to stress.

Use box breathing whenever you feel challenged or angry. This is a great way to prevent being defensive or passive-aggressive – two qualities that take away from executive presence.

#7 Admit your mistakes with strength

Self-accountability is a core trait amongst genuinely great leaders. They can admit their mistakes, apologize ASAP, and turn them into learning opportunities. 

They also understand that mistakes made by others are almost always a reflection on the senior leaders, including themselves. This means they avoid playing the victim or initiating “blame games” when things go wrong. They step back, take responsibility for their downfalls, and focus on leading the team forward with integrity and purpose. 

Action Step: Openly admit to your team members when you make a mistake and the steps you’ll take to fix it. You can practice this by identifying something specific in your personal or professional life where you have been deferring accountability, then ask, “How can I handle this better next time?”

#8 Improve your emotional intelligence

A 40-year study at UC Berkeley found that emotional intelligence is nearly four times more powerful than IQ in predicting success. The World Economic Forum also recently reported that high emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) is one of the most critical job skills in the modern workplace, often surpassing technical abilities and IQ. 

In its simplest form, EI is the ability to recognize, reason with, comprehend, and effectively manage the emotions of yourself and others. 

Emotional intelligence is the sweet spot where self-awareness and self-regulation meet social charisma and empathy. It is at the root of all interpersonal skills. 

Action Step: Improving emotional intelligence is not as simple as studying a book. It requires real-world action in social environments to understand how people work. Dig deeper into the 10 Emotional Intelligence Traits to Master for Self-Growth and how to develop them.

#9 Practice active listening 

A shocking 40% of communication is about listening. Because so much of executive presence revolves around public speaking, this is arguably one of the most overlooked leadership traits. 

Leaders who can listen to their team members are more likable, build stronger relationships, and have a greater understanding of their organization’s daily operations. Listening is a vital sign of humility and a core characteristic of servant leadership

Use these techniques to improve your listening skills:

  • Make eye contact: Show that you are interested in the conversation by maintaining consistent eye contact with someone while they speak. 
  • Be present and engaged: Shut down distractions and give people your undivided attention when they are talking.
  • Avoid interrupting: Interruptions imply that you think your thoughts are more important than what they have to say. 
  • Ask questions: When someone has completed their thoughts, ask follow-up questions to demonstrate your interest and confirm that you understood them correctly.

Action Step: Read about the effective listening styles and determine which kind of listener you are. They include total listening, therapeutic listening, deep listening, and critical listening. Then, consciously practice your listening skills with people you are close to. 

#10 Be passionate about your work

Charismatic leaders have the excitement and encouragement required to promote the productivity of others. Even if the product isn’t necessarily their life calling (for example, HVAC units or software), leaders of these companies are genuinely passionate about developing teams and helping people.

Without passion, there is no positive energy for others to rally around. A good leader should communicate organizational goals and vision regularly. Moreover, they know how to make their team feel essential by reminding them how individual efforts are critical to the overall mission. 

Action Step: Memorize your company’s mission, vision, and core values. Practice describing them in your own words and find ways in which you can integrate your purpose into the business as a whole. 

Executive Presence Coaching

Executive presence is undoubtedly the cornerstone of an effective leader. But you don’t have to be a CEO or manager to develop these traits. Executive presence can help anyone and everyone to be more charismatic in their personal and professional lives. 

If you want to send powerful social signals, it all begins with learning to decode social cues and transform your cues for more influence. 

Unlock the Secrets of Charisma

Control and leverage the tiny signals you’re sending – from your stance and facial expressions to your word choice and vocal tone – to improve your personal and professional relationships.

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