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The New Leadership “It” Factor Emotional Presence

Emotional intelligence is essential to increase awareness of your executive presence.  Self-awareness challenges a leader to reflect on the hard truths:  “Is my executive presence inspiring purposeful action?  Is my presence mobilizing others to perform above and beyond effort?  Is my presence creating a culture that doesn’t just do good work, but does good work with and for others?

Whether you call it charisma, confidence or compelling leadership, executive presence is the new corporate “it” factor. Many people assume it’s about showmanship, charm, unabashed confidence and smooth speaking skills, but this only scratches the surface.

The concept of presence is nebulous for most people, but we all have it to a degree—and we know it when we see it in others. But most of us are unsure of how to increase our presence or mentor it in others.

We’re talking about more than making a great first impression. Presence is multifaceted, builds over time, and is reflected in everything you say, feel and do, and as a leader- what others say, feel and do! It’s applicable to non-executive positions, as well as your personal life and team/community involvement. In fact, presence benefits all aspects of your life.

What is Executive Presence?

In today’s competitive, global work environment, executive presence can make or break your ability to influence others during periods of uncertainty and change. It encourages people to seek you out and opens doors. The thing to remember is that introverts and extroverts can cultivate executive presence, regardless of position or level of power. It has less to do with becoming someone you’re not; rather, it’s about becoming more of who you already are.

Organizations are feverishly seeking individuals with presence whose potential can be developed, partly because of the heightened responsibilities of self-managed teams and work groups. People are being evaluated for presence in numerous routine business situations, including hiring, promotions, performance reviews and compensation bonuses.

Self-managed organization help all employees cultivate presence by learning to amplify qualities of character that win trust. Providing small group forums can help to shape a culture of character throughout the organization, by encouraging leaders to reflect on their life experiences and identify the leadership lessons that have defined them. Storytelling is a powerful tool to use within small group forums to learn habits that project a positive emotional presence.  Three of the best books I recommend to my coaching clients on executive presence are:

  1. Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire, by Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern (Penguin Group, 2004)
  2. The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, by Kristi Hedges (Amacom, 2012)
  3. Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (HarperBusiness, 2014)

How Your Organization Can Develop  with Presence

Since executive presence is the new thing to have, leaders often ask in my coaching practice – So what is it, exactly?

Presence: Often referred to as “bearing,” presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality, subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person. —Karl Albrecht, Social IntelligenceThe New Science ofSuccess (Pfeiffer, 2009)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, surveyed 4,000 college-educated professionals (including 268 senior executives) to find out what coworkers and bosses look for when evaluating executive presence.

Three criteria proved critical:

  1. How you act (gravitas): 67%
  2. How you speak (communication): 28%
  3. How you look (appearance): 5%

Gravitas signals intellectual expertise, but also confidence and credibility. Senior executives picked projecting confidence and grace under fire as presence’s most important qualities.

You communicate authority through your speaking skills and ability to command a room, the top presence picks by senior leaders. Eye contact matters enormously, according to executives surveyed, as do voice, bearing and body language.

Research from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that colleagues size up your competence, likability and trustworthiness in 250 milliseconds, based simply on looks.  First impressions matter, of course, but after that, it’s up to you to fill in the rest of the story by exuding executive presence.

Applied to leadership, we generally think of presence as commanding others’ attention. This is only one outcome, and it’s superficial at best.

“For us, presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others, in order to motivate and inspire them toward a desired outcome.” ~ Lubar and Halpern, in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire

Today’s self-managed organization recognizes that all the competence and wisdom doesn’t matter unless you can connect authentically to motivate and inspire others -for the greater good.

Develop Presence from the Inside out

Presence starts from the inside out, which means starting with self-awareness.  Otherwise, you’re creating window dressing. Presence is about cultivating a magnetism that unites others to work toward common goals—a skill that is hard but can be learned, practiced and improved. Improvement requires you to shift your mindset, develop new behaviors and leave your comfort zone of safe habits.

Presence comes from within. Your mindset creates the platform from which you speak, act and express emotions. Effective leaders must be confident, energetic, empathic, inspirational, credible and authentic. Mentors can provide feedback on how you’re perceived.  This requires taking a hard look at yourself. As Kristi Hedges writes in The Power of Presence:

“Executive presence begins in your head. It resides in how you think about yourself, your abilities, your environment, and your potential.”

Presence is paying mindful attention to how you “show up” and go about your day.  Emotional self-management challenges you to look inside first, by asking each day “How will I”

  • Connect with people?
  • Express your feelings?
  • Listen?
  • Be vulnerable?
  • Behave authentically?
  • Inspire others?


In the work I do coaching leaders, and specifically healthcare executives, I often start with three core areas to build and broaden a leader’s presence: Intention, Connection, and Inspiration.

Intentions drive and create executive presence.   I encourage self-managed teams to examine thought patterns, habits, assumptions and actions.

  • Which core values and guiding purpose truly matter (for me, for the organization)?
  • Who do I intend to be (as an individual, as a member of the organization, profession)?
  • How do I intend to contribute?
  • What will I do now? What will I do next?

Then, I suggest development on connection skills. At the core of any relationship is the connection you have with others. The relationship you have with others determines how effectively you’ll influence them toward desired outcomes. If you foster trust and empathy in your relationships, you’ll no doubt build higher-quality connections.

How do you relate to the individuals with whom you’re charged to motivate and inspire? What’s the quality of your conversations? Do you take time to get to know them? Do you encourage them to speak up?

I recommend developing emotional presence in small group forums, where groups of 8 employees step out of their comfort zone and learn how to be more expressive about their intentions, feelings, passions and values.   When organizations build a psychologically safe environment, employees feel “safe” to show authentic vulnerability leading to higher self awareness, deeper connections and compassion. When you connect with compassion and competency, an empowered community is built.

An approach I highly recommend to develop emotional presence is calledSEMCO, Systemic Empowered Communities.   The Liautaud Institute, University of Illinois Chicago conducted corporate research for more than ten years, to discover and refine the best positive interaction habits and protocol incorporating ISO designed processes.  SEMCO is a program that is biogenically driven, leveraging every process to serve three biogenic needs: Membership Empowerment and Meaning.  I have witnessed how the SEMCO solution creates innovative and empowered cultures where people love coming to work, by energizing organizations with a sense of community and higher purpose.

Winning over hearts and minds requires a nuanced approach to each individual. There are no timesaving ways to accomplish this, nor should you do it simply because “it’s good for business.” Authentically connecting is to “feel” the pulse of corporate culture by connecting first from the heart.

Employees, and especially leaders, who foster connection and approachability areinspirational.  The reality is that few leaders talk openly about their core values and guiding purpose. Your emotional presence depends on how you inspire through your intentions and purpose, as well as how you spend your energy and enthusiasm.

Cynthia M. Kivland is a Board Certified Coach, Master Career Counselor, ACHE Leadership Program Faculty, and Chief Learning Officer, Liautaud Institute, University of Illinois Chicago.

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