Executive Presence: The Secret Sauce That Powers It


  • Author Aileen Pincus
  • Published April 28, 2023
  • Word count 977

“Executive Presence” is one of those terms we hear thrown around a lot…

Nonetheless, like art, it's pretty hard to define but we’re pretty sure we know it when we see it.

Some talk about executive presence simply being about standing, about recognizing that someone with authority and a title is speaking. But executive presence actually stands apart from titles. In fact, we can recognize executive presence in our colleagues without senior titles. And we all know someone in authority who enjoys a senior title who just doesn’t seem to display any presence.

So if it’s not about title or standing in itself, could it simply be a matter of competence? Are we just recognizing the person speaking to us about something has the most knowledge and the longest track record to know what they’re talking about? The problem with that sort of definition is that we all know those with extraordinary competence, who once again, aren’t able to display any real executive presence. And if presence were just about competence in something, we’d never hear someone in charge telling us they’re depending on other people with expertise in order to make a decision.

So, what is executive presence then? What are we seeing and reacting to when we see it displayed powerfully in front of us?

The key ingredient to me in displaying executive presence is the demonstrated ability to inspire others—to be able to lead others toward a shared goal, not through coercion but through inspiration. It’s not really about position or title, although those things do help set expectations in others about your ability to lead and inspire. But it’s something we know doesn’t always convey with titles and positions.

What we’re really talking about here is something much more powerful. It involves the reaction of others to your communications, your ability to instill confidence in others and to persuade others to take some action or reach some conclusion. Inspiring others toward some kind of goal is difficult to measure, but it’s a communication skill that can be identified and developed at every executive level.

When we work with executives to help develop and displaying these kinds of leadership communication skills, we often start by asking them to identify someone they’ve seen who that does just: inspires confidence. Then we dive into defining exactly what it is they’re seeing that moves them. It’s never about title and rarely about standing. It’s often not even about simply knowing more about a subject than anyone else.

The secret sauce? Authenticity.

Again and again, being authentic is the thing that convinces us we can trust the person who is communicating. That’s not solely about the speaker displaying confidence; it’s about connection. It’s that connection with those listening that begins to persuade us that we’re listening to someone who gets it; who understands our connection to whatever the topic is. That’s the person who can move us from authenticity to trust to buy in toward a goal we reach together. You know Socrates argued that persuasive speech is equal parts standing, logic and passion. I suggest in modern times, all of those are still necessary, but it’s the passion most likely to help us connect with an idea and inspire us to recognize the speaker as a powerful leader. To accomplish that, no matter how logical the argument or how impressive the title, we must be convinced of the authenticity of the person we’re listening to.

Now the difficulty is that authenticity isn’t found in canned slogans or mission statements .

Authenticity comes from those who are communicating to us in a way that speaks powerfully to us personally. Those listening need to know why they should care and how they’ll be impacted before they can be persuaded and inspired. That’s why I believe so many executives struggle with what we now call executive presence.

They need to understand, It’s not something you can “put on” : That you can borrow from someone else. it’s something you carry with you that’s revealed to others.

Authenticity by its definition demands genuine expression. It’s not acting. The display of real executive presence demands the communication be authentically the speakers’ own and that’s where the real work comes in.

So how do you communicate a company goal authentically? One powerful way to accomplish that connection is to remember that the personal is powerful. If we know something about the person doing the speaking, and can see their commitment to an idea demonstrated right in front of us, then we’re able to recognize that as authentic. That’s why those with strong executive presence are often strong story tellers, able to reach out and make a connection with an audience whether it be an audience of one or of thousands.

However they find it, those with executive presence find a connection with the audience they’re speaking to…that connection is the pathway to inspiring trust and confidence.

The challenge for executive leaders or those who want to become one in any organization, is to embrace the notion of revealing their own convictions about a direction or a goal, and to avoid parroting someone else’s vision, particularly if that’s not a vision they share. We need to see authenticity in front of us to be convinced. When we see it, we know it, we’re moved by it, and in fact, we can’t get enough of it.

So if you want to lead, if you want to move others, think about how you communicate your authenticity how you connect with those you speak to. That’s the path to displaying real executive presence and that can move mountains.

Aileen Pincus launched The Pincus Group after more than two decades of communications experience, including as a local and national television reporter, a senior communications director a U.S. Senator, and as an executive trainer at a global public relations firm. She now leads training and strategy for the firm’s clients around the country, training senior executives for Fortune 500 companies, as well as for political and non-profit groups. Additional information and free quotes at www.thepincusgroup.com

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