Leadership Presence – Executive ‘X’ Factor

How you show up, how you make others feel, and how effectively you communicate both verbally and non-verbally will make or break your executive career. Top leaders project charisma, confidence, decisiveness, and enthusiasm simply by their very “presence” or “aura”. They may not even have to say anything or do anything special, yet they automatically draw attention from whomever they are near through an ‘X’ factor.

Leadership is the art of influence. Your ability to inspire, influence and ultimately lead people is a reflection of how you show up. It’s not only in the words you say, it’s in the actions you take, how you handle stress, show determination in the face of adversity, demonstrate your desire to develop, and encourage others to do the same.

“Presence” – like aura – is a form of personal power. Ultimately, it comes down to how you carry yourself and the atmosphere you bring with you wherever you go. It stems from truly knowing yourself, believing in yourself, and trusting yourself in the moment. Presence is effortless. It doesn’t require acting or forcing ourselves to be something we’re not. In fact, it’s precisely that type of endless self-monitoring that takes us out of the moment and makes us appear phony, manipulative, or foolish.

Executive X factor cannot be faked by simulating canned responses and body language. People are astute and discerning, so when they see someone puffing up their chest and standing up as straight as a board, they feel uneasy because they recognise the person is trying to portray something that they are not. Building leadership presence isn’t about looking for ways to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Rather, it’s about learning how to exhibit qualities you already possess. The goal is to align other people’s impression of you with your best authentic self so that you stand out as the talented leader you are.

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
― Roy T. Bennett

4 Mistakes that Sabotage your Leadership Presence

As a leader, you are always in the spotlight and your attitude is one of the qualities constantly on the table for critique. This does not mean you must be infallible. Owning your mistakes shows that you are human. However, there are certain mistakes that can unintentionally sabotage your leadership role, especially when they become repetitive. Your ability to lead should reflect in your daily life and activities, not just when you are at work or on a stage. Leadership is not about leading a team alone, it is about leading a life worthy of emulation, understanding the importance of setting a good example, the importance of teamwork, and then making a final decision that leads the team to success. Here are 5 common mistakes that can sabotage your leadership presence:

1. Not Gaining Team Input

A leader cannot achieve success alone. The support and contributions of a willing team are critical to achieving goals. In the same light, a leader may not always have a solution. As a leader, you know this, so you ask for input but you are met with a room of blank stares. Trying to get everyone involved, you ask again for feedback and all you get is… crickets. While there’s no “truth serum” to get people talking, there are some ways to ensure that your team members will participate when asked.

Think about how you ask the question. Are your questions truly open-ended, or are they statements disguised as a question?  Phrases like, “What’s your reaction to the idea on the table?” and “Who has an alternative idea to offer?” are neutral and invite discussion. If you say something like, “Can we all agree that we need to do XYZ?” this only puts the emphasis on your opinions and agenda. This kind of statement is good for bringing a dialog to a close, but not for creating discussion.

Inspect your consistency. Do you consistently ask for input?  Or, do you only ask on the “easy” stuff—things that don’t take a lot of time to work through?  Leaders who establish a track record of inviting diverse opinions are those who will, over time, receive valuable input from their teams. Accept that there will be an upfront investment.  Ask yourself, “Will the investment of time upfront pay off in the long run?”  If there is a true urgency and no time for extended discussion, you can still ask for input, but set a clear parameter: “Team, we are under time pressure so this must be quick—we can only do a quick 15-minute huddle—what can you give me quickly to be sure we still make a good decision?”

Review your track record of taking action. Oftentimes leaders ask for input, (because that’s the culture—we need to be team-based) but they don’t intend to do anything with it.  If you know you won’t (or can’t) take any action on the team’s suggestions, don’t bother asking. That’s just a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Of course, you won’t be able to implement every suggestion, so set the framework: “I’m looking for 10 – 15 ideas.  After that, we’ll whittle the ideas down that best suit our time and budget constraints.”

Do you close the loop? Which of their ideas did you use? Be sure to let them know. Also be sure to let them know if you didn’t use the suggestions—and why.  Be as specific as possible about why the suggestion couldn’t be implemented.  By giving specific feedback now, you can inform the team’s thought process for later, helping them understand the bigger picture issues of budget, strategy, resources, and even organisational politics. This will pay dividends for future “I’d like your input” discussions.

2. Being Defensive After Feedback.

Becoming defensive is a natural human response. When you feel you’re being accused of something or held responsible for something, it’s only natural to get triggered. When you make a mistake at work, there’s always the temptation to dodge the bullet by blaming someone else or explaining why factors outside your control contributed to your failure.

Researchers say that leaders who act this way are ultimately perceived as less effective than those who acknowledge their shortcomings and seek insights on how they can improve. It’s called “defending,” and it involves being closed-minded when challenged or when given critical feedback. It is also the same reason team members refuse to give honest feedback or contribute their ideas.

Realise the negative effects. When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, or a board member, we may shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear.

Keep your stress level low. If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. If we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low.

3. Losing Control of Emotion.

Emotional intelligence, specifically emotional self-regulation, are critical tools for resolving conflicts and building healthy relationships. Over the last three decades, we’ve seen a lot of research on how emotional intelligence and self-regulation can play out in the workplace, particularly among leaders. This is because leaders’ emotional states and perceivable emotional responses are so influential over their followers.

With a global pandemic and social unrest, emotions are high. To get through (or thrive in) a crisis, leaders need to have difficult conversations with their employees—all while processing their own feelings about what is going on in the world. This is a difficult feat, which is why it’s essential to stick to simple strategies. Here are four tools that leaders can use to manage their emotions at work to foster a supportive workplace, especially amid crisis and uncertainty.

Commit to Staying Calm Formally establish a self-regulation rule and commit to it. This can help you develop healthy interpersonal relationships. Researchers call these emotional display rules and have found commitment to these rules critical for emotional self-regulation at work. A rule may sound like: “No matter what happens, I stay calm.” Or “I speak calmly and respectfully.” Then it’s your job is to live by it. Make this your personal code of conduct.

Focus on Your Breath. A plethora of empirical research has shown a causal link between mindfulness and emotional regulation at work, especially as this link affects workplace conflict. One central component of mindfulness practice is breathwork—the concentration on deliberate breathing for purposes of self-regulation. When you’re feeling heated and sense you may shut down or blow up, try focusing on your breath. Take your focus and intention to the rise and fall of your chest with each in-breath and out-breath. Concentrating on the breath helps bring you out of your head, into your body, and into the present moment, where you have far greater control over your behaviour and reactions.

4. Displaying Constant Traits of Perfectionism

Being a perfectionist can delay the process of reaching your goals and also has the potential to sabotage your leadership role. There’s a big difference between a perfectionist and a leader. One draws people to a cause and the other repels them. While perfectionists may be adept at pointing out opportunities for improvement, few people tend to want to join them in the process of improving things. Here are some thoughts to ponder if your keen eye for detail is morphing into perfectionism:

  • When you lead with handing out instructions you don’t put yourself in a position to be instructed.
  • If no one can do it as good as you then no one will be doing it but you. Perfectionism is lonely. It’s also a cap to organisational growth.
  • You know who listens to a know-it-all? No one.
  • Perfectionism is the enemy of innovation.
  • You can’t play it safe and lead fearlessly. The very essence of leadership is going somewhere you’ve never been before.
  • High control leads to low trust. By the way, you know control is an illusion right? The only thing you can really control is your effort and your attitude.
  • If you wait for the perfect plan you’ll never get out of the gate.
  • Good enough is good enough for good leaders.
  • Leaders care too much about results and progress to be stuck waiting on the perfect next step (or first step).
  • Perfectionism is the low road and the easy way out. Leadership requires developing others, and allowing others to do it differently than you (maybe even fail, yikes!).

Research clearly shows that there is a significant correlation between how you present yourself and the extent to which your work is being appreciated in the workplace. In fact, a study by the Centre for Talent Innovation revealed that executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to be promoted. This means that having the necessary background, experience and skill-set is the basic condition to get promoted, however it’s just not sufficient. You also need to project yourself to others as a leader.

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The 5 Cs of Leadership Presence

Presence allows you to tap into inner resources you already have – it brings out your best and most sincere self. It creates a powerful aura around you that anyone can pick up on. The qualities of leadership presence include credibility, confidence, composure, connection, and charisma. Here are a few tips that will help you express these qualities:

1. Credibility

Credibility builds trust, and when you fully trust someone, it enables you to work with them much more efficiently and productively than if you’re constantly worrying about them and assessing their abilities. Trust is a positive business difference-maker. Credibility is about trust, respect, and being believable. A leader’s credibility is typically defined in terms of the degree of employee confidence, belief, and acceptance towards the leader. When someone is viewed as highly credible, they are seen as an asset, a valuable team player, someone you want to work with.

While credibility has many facets, in most cases it is judged simply by comparing what you say with what you do in your day-to-day behaviour. Leaders that say one thing but do another won’t have the authenticity and credibility that’s essential to be an effective leader in today’s rapidly changing environment. Being trustworthy is not the only contributor to your credibility as a leader. The other very important component of credibility is the perceived competence of the leader – i.e., people’s faith in your knowledge, skills, and ability to do your job and get the job done as a leader.

2. Confidence

Confidence is a key driver of effective leadership. The ability to both possess and exhibit confidence has a measurable impact on your ability to lead well. Confidence is not arrogance. An arrogant person attempts to lift themself up and put others down. Every move is calculated to elevate themself and make sure others know of their importance.

Confidence is a feeling or belief that we can rely on someone or something. Self-confidence is a feeling of trust in our own abilities, qualities, and judgment. Confidence allows you to conduct meetings with sufficient influence and power, to accept bluntness, and commence communication. The greater your confidence as a leader, the more faith employees will have in the company and its mission.

3. Composure

Leadership is set by example. Like the other key elements of workplace culture, professionalism starts at the very top with your company’s leadership. As a leader, you set the emotional tone for your team by demonstrating professionalism. Remaining composed as a leader isn’t a recommendation, it’s a necessity. Maintaining control of your emotions allows you to make concise decisions based on strategic thinking instead of impulses. Great leaders inspire their teams to stay calm, focused, and motivated. They choose their words and actions carefully so they are a model of optimism and poise under pressure.

4. Connection

Human beings are wired to connect. Our need to connect is as basic as our need for food and water. Although we naturally switch between analytical thinking and social thinking, the latter seems to be our default. Whenever we finish doing some kind of non-social thinking, the network for social thinking comes back on like a reflex—almost instantly. Human connection enhances our sense of identity and our resilience—both are extremely important in difficult, unstable moments. And we are definitely in an unstable moment! Your ability, as a leader, to make genuine connections is more important than ever.

5. Charisma

Charismatic leaders are essentially very skilled communicators – individuals who are verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level. They are able to articulate a compelling or captivating vision, and to arouse strong emotions in followers. Leadership charisma calls for wisdom and knowledge instead of empty showmanship. You need to make wise choices and avoid “playing a powerful leader” that doesn’t get things done. Regardless of the occasion, you need to behave responsibly and maturely.

“Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can’t be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people.”

– Lee Iacocca

The Power of Leadership Presence

The single most important factor in being a successful leader is to “know yourself.” To truly understand enough about your mind, your reactivity, and your “filters” so you can use that information to make you more effective, more compassionate, and more innovative. Cultivating your capacity to know yourself can be difficult, but it is the difference between an auto-pilot existence and really showing up and being here for your life.

Leadership presence is a tangible quality. It requires full and complete nonjudgmental attention in the present moment. Those around a mindful leader see and feel that presence. Leadership presence is powerful. In your own life, you can probably recall times when you experienced leadership presence, either in yourself or someone else. It might have been in a one-on-one conversation, or it might have been in an audience filled with people. Presence can be felt even from far away.

You can undoubtedly recall the much more common experiences when you feel only partially in the room, or you feel the person you’re speaking with is not really there. Like all of us, even when you have every intention to be focused, your mind becomes easily distracted—thinking about the past or the future, and only partially in the present if at all. In those moments, you are not embodying the innate capacity everyone possesses to be present. Why is that?

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
― Albert Schweitzer

What Do we Know About Being Present?

You might recall a moment when you experienced full awareness in a situation. A moment when there seemed to be nothing else but whatever you were focussed on. This might have been a significant moment, like the birth of your child. In that moment, time may have seemed to stand still, and nothing else existed but the warmth of that miraculous being softly sleeping in your arms. You were not distracted by the to-do list or the noises in the hall. Your full attention—mind, body, and heart—was completely absorbed at that moment. Leadership presence is not only critical for us as individuals but also has a ripple effect on those around us: the community we live in, and potentially the world.

“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”
― Seth Godin

4 Speaking Habits to Boost your Leadership Presence

Being a leader is not about teaching your audience–it’s about influencing them with your point of view. To boost your leadership presence, start by developing these four speaking habits:

  1. Connect the Dots

Don’t simply dump data, connect the dots. As a leader, you can’t assume that your listeners will have your level of knowledge of specific topics, or your understanding of what the numbers mean to the company. It’s on you to demonstrate that.

     2. Speak From the Heart

Difficult conversations with difficult people come in all sorts of situations and circumstances.  Often they involve a sensitive topic, and we worry about finding the perfect time and perfect place to approach it. So how do you engage in a difficult conversation with a difficult person? The answer is in the heart. Anything that can be felt can be communicated, and anything that can be communicated can be managed.

     3. Keep it Simple

You might be tempted to show your technical knowledge by using complicated language, but this tends to kill leadership presence–so please don’t. At best, you’ll come across as confusing, and at worst, you’ll come across as arrogant. Neither outcome is ideal when you want to invoke credibility as a leader. As a leader, being clear and simple trumps being verbose. By using plain, simple language, you’ll be able to get your point across in as few words as possible, and this helps to magnify the impact of what you’re saying.

      4. Use Storytelling for Maximum Impact

Storytelling is useful in a variety of situations. The five most commonly used are: inspiring the organisation, setting a vision, teaching important lessons, defining culture and values, and explaining who you are and what you believe. In researching his book, Dan Schawbel  interviewed over 75 CEOs and executives at dozens of companies around the world. He found them using stories in a much wider range of leadership challenges than expected. For example, storytelling is useful when heavy influence is required like leading change, or making recommendations to the boss. It’s also good for delicate issues like managing diversity and inclusion, or giving people coaching and feedback in a way that will be received as a welcome gift. It can help bring out more of people’s creativity, or help them rekindle the passion for their work. People will tell stories about you and your company whether you want them to or not. Fortunately, you can help choose which ones they tell. How do you do that? You tell them first.

“Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.”
― Peter F. Drucker

Executive 'X' Factor

Many people in positions of authority struggle with their leadership presence. They adopt the kind of persona that they assume a leader is supposed to have: a TED Talk cadence, authoritative body language, studied informality, and (when speaking publicly) a package of carefully curated slides. This makes these people look and sound like everybody else because the fashions in leadership presence rapidly become clichés. Most of the time, behaviours like these are immediately recognised as a performance. If you try to adopt them, people will know you aren’t authentic, and they will assume your message isn’t, either.

People who give us their undivided attention most vividly manifest presence. There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost forever. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open, and to express your uniqueness to the best of your ability. This is your Executive ‘X’ Factor. This is Leadership Presence.

“There comes a time in your life when you can no longer put off choosing. You have to choose one path or the other. You can live safe and be protected by people just like you, or you can stand up and be a leader for what is right. Always, remember this: People never remember the crowd; they remember the one person that had the courage to say and do what no one else would do.”
― Shannon L. Alder


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