What is Executive Presence and Why is It Important?

You’re sitting in a meeting room, surrounded by peers and senior executives—half of whom are nose down in laptops and iPhones, firing off last minute emails and texts. The other half are chatting and distracted.

You have a slight sense of tense anticipation for the meeting that’s about to happen. It’s likely you’ll be asked to speak and, for whatever reason, you find it hard to express yourself fully in front of this group.

Public speaking has never been your favorite activity, and it’s always toughest in front of senior leadership.

Your breath is short, there’s tightness in your chest, and just the slightest sense of dread.

The door opens, and in walks your CEO. She is smiling, and cracks a joke that makes the room laugh. She sits down without any notes in front of her and acknowledges those in the room. Immediately, the room is quiet and attentive, waiting for her to speak.

When she begins to talk, it’s as if she’s speaking naturally, without much effort at all. But what she says is clear, concise and lands with the participants in the room.

“I wish I could be more like her,” you think.

You watch how she moves, what she does with her hands.

You try to will away the nervousness inside, try to stop thinking about being nervous.

You try to will yourself to just "be more confident", or try (unsuccessfully) to improve your confidence in the moment.

You begin rehearsing what you want to say over and over in your mind before it’s your turn to talk.

You tell yourself you should be better at this.

It’s not always the case that a leader exemplifies Executive Presence. But when they do, like the CEO in the story, you know it. Rather, you feel it. And, for most people, you want it.

Unlike, learning a behavior—i.e., what to do with your hands when you talk, or how loud to speak, etc.—understanding Executive Presence is a matter of experiencing it inside yourself.

Executive Presence is a way of expressing the natural, authentic sense of calm power latent in every leader.

It is the art of leading in the present moment.

When a leader exemplifies Executive Presence, they can command and quiet a room without saying a word.

Often we are overwhelmed with the nerves of public speaking—whether it’s on stage, in a meeting, with senior leadership, with the people who work for us, industry peers, etc.

But a leader who embodies Executive Presence understands that it’s not about shaping yourself to be a different kind of person in order to lead.

Rather, it’s about relaxing into the present moment, enjoying it, even. It’s about having the confidence to listen to the points of view in a room, responding appropriately, and speaking from the heart.

It's about being more yourself.

Even as you read this, let your arms relax. Feel the breath moving unencumbered through your belly. Let yourself drop in to an inner sense of the feelings in your body. Let your feet rest heavy on the floor. Sense, in yourself, a kind of vital energy that inspires and motivates your work when you are at your most passionate.

What if you could be this relaxed surrounded by a room full of senior executives?

What if you could be as effortless in a meeting as you are with your friends?

What if you could express that vital, inspired passion in the heat of high pressure situations?

Executive Presence is calm. Calm communicates confidence. There is no need to dominate the room because your body is not threatened when it is calm.

You enter into a sort of intuitive flow, trusting you’ll know what to say when to say it.

Executive Presence is not necessarily yielding, either. When appropriate, you are willing to share disagreeing points of view.

You are willing to express what is true for you in the present moment.

Because you are grounded in your own inner strength and presence, you are not handing your power over to the reactions of the people around you.

Think of it this way: imagine walking down the street and coming across a stranger in the midst of a panic attack. What happens to your body? What kind of feelings do you feel when you encounter someone who is themselves experiencing threat?

In the same way, a leader who is tense, dominating and controlling is causing those around them to perceive, consciously or unconsciously, a threat. This kind of tension or fear is contagious.

When a leader understands and embodies Executive Presence, the reverse is true. People feel calm in their presence, more likely to share their true thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately, we trust Executive Presence. We sense an openness when a leader speaks and leads with this quality—one that is all too rare.

It is not the behaviors or what they say, but it is more about their “being.” Who they are being is relaxed and effortless, confident and fully expressed.

It’s like the French phrase “je ne sais quoi”—an idea we often associate with a certain, hard to describe something that is attractive to us. It’s not about the behaviors we exhibit, it’s less tangible than that.

It's who we are "being" in the moment.

This is the importance of Executive Presence. It’s a starting point to really great leadership, great public speaking, and great overall communication.

When we are calm and in tune with our natural internal power and presence, we can speak and lead with an authenticity and poise that cannot be learned—because it’s already there waiting for us to unleash.


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The Inner Game of Leadership

There’s a natural "source-fulness" that is moving through every human being.  This might look like passion, or inspiration, or vitality. Some might call it "life force."

For some, this source-fulness is blocked or dampened. Great leaders, though, are full, unfettered expressions of this inner spark.

Leadership is about tuning into the natural, effortless movement of life guiding the individual—tuning in through intuition, presence, clear decision making, self-authorized ownership, and passion.

Often, past habits, fear, poor communication and ego interfere with the unlimited potential that is held by this life force. This is exemplified in the performance coaching equation I work with (coined originally by Inner Game of Tennis Coach Timothy Gallwey):

Performance = Potential - Interference

Working with me results in a sense of ease. With clear, articulated vision, removing the blocks that are in the way of acting on this vision, having a sense of deep relaxation, and identifying actions to move towards the vision, serendipitous events occur along with clear results.

Basically, the vision becomes real, and it often seems hard to believe how it happens.

This applies to individuals in leadership roles as well as teams and, ultimately, entire organizations. With less, more relaxed work, and by clarifying vision and action, far more is accomplished.

Imagine if an entire community had the ability, permission and skills to tap into this power. Natural creativity arises, inspiration is kindled, and solutions emerge that could never have been found before.

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The Body is the Tool of the Performer

The physical body is the tool of the performer. It’s the means for expression.

I know many people come to performance coaching looking for suggestions on what to do with their hands, or how to walk around on stage. A lot of classes will give you postures and movements to explore.

But, in my opinion, it’s not moves you need to learn, it’s the freedom to fully express from your body that can guide your movement. Basically, if you were totally present up there, you would know what to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think learning movements is a fantastic approach. The movements I teach, though, are more meant to help cause physiological state changes that will guide what you do on stage.

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The Number One Key to Unlocking Your Stage Presence

Stage presence is a funny thing.

You know when someone “has it” but you don’t always know exactly why.

A lot of people think you’re either born with it or you aren’t. Maybe you learned it from years of practice.

This is why stage presence is something that’s so hard to teach: many don’t actually know what stage presence even is.

Here’s my most basic definition of stage presence:

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Everyone Can Learn Stage Presence

stage presence

The beauty of improving your comfort with public speaking is that, since we are speaking in public most of our lives, we’ve already amassed quite a bit of experience.

I think it’s important to remember that most, if not all of the tools you need to enhance your communications exist inside of a lifetime of interactions with other people.

We are all highly trained communicators just by the function of living our lives in communities. It’s no coincidence these words are so similar.

In my work, I have found that helping people become great speakers or performers or communicators is not necessarily as much about teaching new skills. It’s more about learning to utilize and amplify the tools you already have. Continue reading

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