Some people think the term “leadership presence” is all about wearing the right wardrobe or mastering the latest presentation skills.
Some people think the term “leadership presence” is all about wearing the right wardrobe or mastering the latest presentation skills. Those things may play a role, but true leadership presence involves much more—and you probably underestimate its importance to the success of your business. “Executive presence is more than a surface-level phenomenon,” says executive coach and author Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications, Inc. “At Bates, we define executive presence as the qualities of a leader that engage, inspire, align, and move people to act.”
The two biggest problems that Karen Leland, a CEO branding expert at Sterling Marketing Group, encounters among SMB owners are a lack of attention paid to this topic and underestimation of the impact their leadership presence—or lack of it—has on others. “SMB owners who suffer from these problems often experience high turnover, difficulties with business partners, drama, and miscommunication with their boards—startups, in particular—and increased personal stress,” she says.
It’s possible to improve your leadership presence, but in order to do that you need to establish a baseline of where you currently stand, and you’ll probably need some help with that. As Leland points out, it’s difficult for someone to self-evaluate their own leadership presence. “As the saying goes, you can’t see the inside of your own eyelids,” she quips.
Hiring an outside expert such as an executive coach to conduct a leadership presence and personal brand audit is one option, but if that’s beyond your resources, you might consider a more informal approach. Employees and business partners are an obvious source of feedback, but in order to ensure candor, you need a truly anonymous way to obtain it. Leland suggests creating a simple form that can be filled out online then printed out to eliminate the possibility of identifying handwriting—with no names required, of course. The questions should focus on how these people see you today, what they view as your strengths, and areas where they think you could improve.
“Leaders get to where they are by having substance,” Bates says. “Substance encompasses practical wisdom, confidence, composure—facets that are all cultivated over time as a leader matures professionally.” She adds that many SMB leaders are surprised to find out how much character matters. “Elements of a leader’s character—authenticity, integrity, concern, restraint, and humility—are the qualities that often really inspire above-and-beyond levels of effort from others in the organization,” she says.
Leadership presence for SMB owners requires them to praise loudly and publicly and to blame privately whenever possible, suggests Zach Schaefer, assistant professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and founder and president of consulting firm Spark the Discussion. “SMB leaders can’t be afraid of their own voice. Multiple forms of communication are important, from informal hallway chats to ceremonial speeches at major events,” he says. “Both mundane and milestone communication events are opportunities to inspire people to go beyond their current expectations.”
In the end, the best ways to improve your own leadership presence will depend on where you’re starting from and what you hope to achieve, but Leland says great leadership presence always includes three essential elements. The first is humility, a willingness to admit you were wrong and that you may not be the smartest person in the room. The second is gravitas, the ability to communicate a seriousness and clarity of vision and the decisiveness to carry it out. That does not mean being a stubborn, arrogant, narcissistic boss who never pivots or takes feedback from others, she emphasizes. “It’s about being confident in knowing what you want to achieve and communicating it clearly in action—through presentations, making eye contact, good pitch, volume, pace, clarity of speech, and dress.” The final essential is credibility. “When the people you work with believe what you say and trust you to do your best to live up to your word, your leadership presence increases tenfold.”
This article was originally published on Inc.