What Drives Leadership Presence?

Excerpt from “OWN THE ROOM: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence” by Amy Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins (Harvard Business Review Press; April 16, 2013).

By Amy Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins

When we lead executive programs, we start by asking people to think of someone they know who has effective presence. Then we ask them to describe that person’s impact. Why do they identify that particular person as having great presence? What are the qualities he or she exudes? Typically, this is what we hear:

  • He sets a vision and inspires action.
  • She effortlessly conveys a clear message to multiple audiences.
  • He is confident and also knows when to say, “I don’t know.”
  • She’s comfortable in her skin.
  • He walks the talk.
  • She is aware of what others in the organization think and feel.
  • He has the ability to be direct in a non-confrontational way.
  • She has grace under pressure.

Then we ask participants to help us dissect the makeup of effective presence. What is it that these selected people do, or don’t do, that make us feel they have strong presence? Typically, this is what we hear: silence.

A room full of very smart executives quickly and zealously describe what great leadership presence looks like but then are stymied and silenced when asked to identify the drivers of such presence. Presence is one of those things that, when you see it, you know it. But most people have a hard time articulating what exactly creates it. When you watched Oprah at the helm of her wildly successful show, or Steve Jobs delivering news about the latest Apple technology, you knew you were experiencing a presence that was unique and made a difference. But much harder to pinpoint are the mind-sets, behaviors, and actions that these individuals possess—or lack—that grant them the presence of a leader. Even harder is turning the lens on yourself and figuring out what you can do to increase your impact through your presence.

In response to this black hole of practical advice, this book offers a framework that enables anyone to expand his or her leadership presence by taking concrete actions. We disaggregate what leadership presence is and provide a step-by-step approach to developing your own leadership voice.

Integrated Approach to Presence: Assumptions, Communication, Energy

Much of what is out in the leadership literature today approaches presence in a narrowly focused way. One of the most popular books, “Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire,”provides a compelling argument for using acting techniques to help leaders get their messages across with emotion. This book is very original but lacks a clear connection to the business context. It also places a heavy emphasis on the physical aspects of presence, which, as we’ll explain, comprise only one piece of the puzzle. “Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO”offers a series of topics as an answer for building executive presence but lacks an overarching framework to hold the pieces together and doesn’t provide readers with an integrated, practical approach to developing their presence. “Executive Charisma”proposes an approach to leadership presence from an outside-in perspective, again focusing on the physical aspects. In our view, an overemphasis on the physical can cause a person to pursue a leadership presence that is inauthentic.

We bring up these books not to disrespect them—on the contrary, we have learned a lot from them—but rather to highlight the difference in our approach. Clearly, much has been written on the topic of leadership presence, and we do not claim to have invented the field. But this book is different. The Signature Voice framework offers a new, more comprehensive lens on this well-trodden ground. It presents an integrated way of working on leadership presence that addresses the whole person and leads to sustainable authentic change.

What makes presence is not just the clothes you wear, the words you speak, or how you think. Rather, presence requires alignment between your mind, body, and words—to walk the talk, you need a simultaneous focus on all three levers: mental, skill, and physical.

Your presence is an interconnected system of your beliefs and assumptions, your communication skills, and your physical energy. You cannot address each separately or you won’t see consistent results. Rather, when you work on all three areas in concert you move from having good presence to having Signature Voice.

Think about a leader who has worked hard to hone his public speaking skills but has neglected to question the assumptions he has made about his senior-level audience. Those assumptions are likely to undermine him, making him feel nervous, unsure, and perhaps even small. No matter how well he frames his message or how clearly he organizes his presentation, he will appear incongruent to his audience. The words coming out of his mouth won’t match what people experience from his body language. His presence will be diluted as a result.

In this book, we present an integrated approach to help you achieve congruency. Much like an athlete preparing for a competition by training his mind, skill, and body, developing your Signature Voice is based on conditioning your assumptions, your communication strategies, and your energy. We call this ACE conditioning.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from “OWN THE ROOM: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.” Copyright 2013 Amy Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins. All rights reserved. For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Own-Room-Discover-Signature-Leadership/dp/14221839...

Amy Jen Su andMuriel Maignan Wilkins are authors of “OWN THE ROOM: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence” (Harvard Business Review Press; April 16, 2013). They are co-founders and managing partners of Isis Associates, a Washington, DC-based executive coaching and leadership development firm, advising a range of professionals and organizations across industries such as financial services, health care, biotech, private equity, professional services, and nonprofit. Both earned their MBAs from Harvard Business School.

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