Executive Presence Is Not About You

 In Presence
Man in tuxedo striking a pose with his sunglasses

When we facilitate our Vocal Impact workshop on Executive Presence, we begin with a discussion of the characteristics of EP. What is it? Often, participants describe it as “charisma,” or that indescribable “certain something” that some people have because “they were just born that way.” However, The Center for Talent Innovation, a research group in New York City, who did an extensive study on Executive Presence, found it is much more tangible than a “certain something.” It is “an amalgam of qualities that true leaders exude, a presence that telegraphs you’re in charge or deserve to be.”

After surveying hundreds of executives, they further concluded that Executive Presence can be broken down into specific qualities, with the core being “gravitas.” That may still sound like that illusive “certain something” to you, but the dictionary defines “gravitas” as “dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner,” traits that can be learned and developed.  Furthermore, the research at the Center breaks “gravitas” down into several behaviors with 79% of those surveyed saying the most important behavior of a person with gravitas is “exuding confidence and grace under fire.”

In 1929, Dorothy Parker quoted Ernest Hemingway in an article in The New Yorker, saying that having guts was the equivalent of “grace under pressure.” The use of the phrase “grace under fire” is popularly traced to that article. However, though people who display grace under fire may be courageous, the definition of the word “grace” has little to do with guts and everything to do with “courtesy, respect and good will,” while the definition of  “under fire” is “being attacked” or “subjected to intense criticism or judgment”. Thus, someone who demonstrates confidence, courtesy, respect, and good will while being attacked or subjected to intense criticism or judgment exhibits the most important behavior of Executive Presence. Good grief! That’s a lot to ask!

Can you learn that, or do you have to be “born that way?”

Closely examined, the definition of grace gives us a clue to the answer – We need to be able to step out of being reactive and step into being aware that there are others involved who have ideas, concerns, needs and opinions, and learn that this is important even when we are being subjected to intense criticism. The author of Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, said, “We are responsible for what we hear other people say and for how we act.” Of course, that’s easier said than done when one feels attacked. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

How, then, do you develop the capacity for grace under fire?

The first step is to accept the words I read on a sign the other day: “Everyone is going through something.” The second step is to train ourselves to be better listeners and observers on a daily basis.  A 2018 study at USC confirmed that “Subtle inflections in tone, the pauses between phrases, the volume at which you speak – it all conveys hidden signals about how you really feel.” Our body language conveys messages, too, and you don’t need to be a scientist or psychologist to become aware of all those signals. By practicing regularly to notice the cues that indicate how others feel, to demonstrate that matters, to trust intuition and or simply be open to accepting those signals for what they are, we have the opportunity to practice empathy and get good at it before we are in more difficult situations. We can, therefore, develop, over time, grace under fire. According to Rosenberg, “Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing,” and that sounds a whole lot like the definition of grace.

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