Show your humanness—vulnerability, authenticity, and equity are the ways to lead.
Confidence. Gravitas. Appearance. Executive presence. That is the archetype of the leader whom people will follow through a storm.
How many times have individuals been told to improve those capabilities if they wish to move up in an organization? Stoicism in the face of adversity is sure to inspire the masses, right? Not quite—in fact, not at all.
What it means to be a leader today has transformed more in the past five years than in the previous 20. Words like authenticity, vulnerability, and equity are clearing a path through the once-lauded confidence and grit. Inspiration will always be at the core of leadership—it’s how we get there that’s changing.
A fractured termWhat’s broken about our perception and thinking around executive presence? First, executive presence is horrendously tricky to define. The more nebulous the term, the more opportunity for bias.
Countless books and research articles have staked their claim on what’s in the secret sauce. When asked to define executive presence, leaders often say, “I just know it when I see it.” In the context of a performance review, that can translate to “just be more like me.”
Granted, baseline communication and the ability to articulate your vision is nonnegotiable for any leader. But the hard truth is that polish is not leadership. Showing the cracks, your deep awareness of those cracks, and how you manage around them is the type of leadership people want to follow.
Charting a new definitionWhat does it look like when we ditch the term executive presence? It’s tough to define, full of bias, and not interesting to younger generations joining the workforce. That’s not ideal. So now what?
I once asked Aman Bhutani, CEO of GoDaddy, what it means to be a great leader. He put it simply: Be a better human.
I recently watched a keynote speaker share at the beginning of their presentation that they were nervous. They admitted it’s hard for them to tell their story, and they asked the crowd to cheer a bit, which helps get the nerves out. The crowd went nuts. The energy in the room completely shifted because attendees desperately wanted the speaker to succeed. Audience members saw the speaker as a human like the rest of us.
How did that person with low executive presence win audience members’ hearts and minds? Humanness. Knowing that public speaking was hard for the speaker made what they were doing so much more inspirational. In other words, the original definition of executive presence means to fit an external mold, but the new definition is to show humanness—to be a better version of your true self.
Executive humannessIf humanness is the new standard, how do you harness it?
Relentlessly pursue self-knowledge. Imagine for a moment writing a thesis paper entirely on you. Why do you show up the way you do? What are your triggers? What scares you? When do you get lost in flow? What strengths do you overuse?
There are numerous assessments designed to accelerate self-knowledge, such as StrengthsFinder, EQ-i, Insights, Hogan, and 360s. Or ask those closest to you to share their insights. You must have an endless hunger for understanding yourself.
Liberally share your journey. The power of self-knowledge is multiplied exponentially as you share it with others. That creates intimacy and invites people to participate in your story.
The keynote speaker, for example, had the self-awareness to know they get really nervous about public speaking. They shared their journey authentically and asked for what they needed. The entire audience then leaned in and filled the room with pride, energy, and inspiration—the exact outcome executive presence promises to deliver.
Appreciate opposite talents. Imagine going through a performance review where your supervisor tries to make you even more like yourself. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, your supervisor instead surrounds you with people who look and act differently than you. The collective power of those differences creates value and enables you to lean into your strengths.
Focusing on talents that aren’t natural to you is like writing with your nondominant hand. You could work on it for months, only to get marginally better while remaining in a constant state of frustration.
Humanness means spending energy appreciating opposing talents. Those partnerships are infinitely more fruitful than striving for personal perfection.
Be quiet. As an extrovert and external processer, I find being quiet maddeningly difficult. Executive presence is often about how we talk—it says nothing about how we listen.
Great facilitators know how to lead a room while taking up very little airtime. They create a safe space for sharing and curiosity.
Presenters talk. Facilitators listen. Humanness is the ability to ask a powerful question and let the sharing begin. Ask yourself, “Would I rather engage with a smooth talker or a fully present listener?”
Talented people are craving leaders who are real. They seek truth in a world in which it’s increasingly hard to find that. Vulnerability is the purest form of confidence. Both as a leader and a talent development professional, I encourage you to step up as a self-aware leader and encourage others to share their imperfections, inviting them to be human with you.
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