3 Critical Attributes of Leadership Presence

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the “Leadership Presence” series, a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the good people at CEO.com. Keep track of the series here and check our daily e-mail newsletter for all posts. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

Everybody is talking about it. Somebody needs to step up and show it. What’s all the fuss? Executive presence.

The last four years has shown a marked increase in the interest, money, and worry surrounding executive presence. And why are HR executives and corporate leaders so keen to find leaders with executive presence? It’s a matter of trust.

What’s the Problem?

As we lurch through the first part of the 21st century, we are desperately in need of people who make us feel calm, confident and inspired. Ironically, as we hand over more of our work to technology, and remove ourselves from each other, the need for authentic, human interaction increases. We rely on email, the phone, videoconference, and automation to take care of our colleagues and our clients. If we only have once or twice a year to interact with those important people, we want that experience to be professional, meaningful and authentic.

We also long to be inspired. Dynamic personalities and the self-help market are cashing in on that need. When someone with executive presence sets a higher standard and makes us feel motivated and excited about our work, everyone reaps the benefits. Engaged employees provide lavish discretionary effort – and it’s often that extra tip that puts a company ahead of its competition.

When someone with executive presence sets a higher standard and makes us feel motivated and excited about our work, everyone reaps the benefits.

The Big Three Attributes

In the best leaders with whom I’ve worked, there are three consistent attributes I’ve noticed. These attributes create a presence that is strong, professional and trusted. Most importantly, the persona is unique. Executive presence can look very different from leader to leader, but the sense that employees trust an executive is the constant.

1. Willing to Be Real and Vulnerable 

There’s nothing more powerful than a leader who is human, accessible and real. The irony here is that most believe you must hide your weaknesses. The real secret is to own them – then they can’t be used against you. If you readily show your weaknesses, make moves to improve them, and continue to lean on your strengths, people feel all the more loyal. My favorite example is a brilliant leader who loved to use the whiteboard – but couldn’t spell to save her life. She readily acknowledged that she had a blind spot, actively engaged her team to help her, and did it without diminishing her power at the front of the room. It made her human, it inspired her team to protect her and cover her back when she authored important documents, and never became something people sniggered about behind her back.

There’s nothing more powerful than a leader who is human, accessible and real. @KarenHough

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2. Empathetic Communicator 

Of course we all know a leader needs to be an excellent communicator – clear, impactful, and consistent. However, empathy insists on listening, thinking and putting yourself in the shoes of others. When leaders take time to consider viewpoints other than their own, and really think about alternatives that may seem unusual, risky or even unacceptable on first blush, it will force him/her to ask “Why? What is the motivation behind this? What is driving this person/idea?” That ability to put the ego on hold not only allows you to connect to your employees but also expands the world of possible answers and solutions from which your enterprise can benefit.

3. Calm in Chaos 

Almost anybody can lead when times are good, but it is those who are calm, thoughtful and action-oriented during crises embody executive presence. Whether they are losing a big client or facing a natural disaster, those who keep their wits and take action are the exemplary leaders we turn to when everything calms down.

Own your weaknesses – then they can’t be used against you. @KarenHough

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Real, empathetic and calm. Definitely the description of someone I would follow, and more importantly, someone I would trust to deliver tough news or for whom I’d be willing to go above and beyond. So where do you stand? If you really want to know, ask a few trusted people, those who’ll be honest, but also those who’ll be willing to help you improve.


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Karen Hough, Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, is a #1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post and recipient of the Stevie silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012 as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. Ms. Hough’s second book, “Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over” was just published by Berrett-Koehler. She is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the US and internationally. Her company has a presence in five cities with a client list that includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Novo Nordisk and Turner Broadcasting to name a few. Ms. Hough trained and performed with Chicago’s legendary Second City, and is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. She holds board positions, volunteers extensively and lives with her husband and three children in Ohio.

  • Creativedge TD

    Some good attributes, to which I’d also like to add the following:- ‘Share your Vision’. This helps people to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves and their individual job. Do this by making sure they know and have access to the organisation’s overall mission, vision and strategic plans. Include employees in the actual planning and ask for their input. That will OWN the direction and will surprise you with their competence and commitment.

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