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Ever wondered if there was an indispensable leadership quality? Probably not one, but a combination defined as one.

Picture this. You have been selected to represent your department at an executive board meeting of your Fortune 500 company. Your mission is to present a proposal for a project your department feels is critical to the organization, and your ultimate goal is to get the boards’ commitment to move forward with the project, along with funding to support it.

On your way to the meeting, you have a flat tire which causes you to arrive several minutes late. In your effort to change the flat tire, you end up looking a bit disheveled, with a coffee stain you were not aware existed on the front of your shirt. Suffice it to say, you do not appear “dressed for success.”

A bit rattled by your late entrance, you fumble awkwardly through introductions, calling a couple board members by a nickname common to their formal name. When you finally sit down, you frantically search for a pen and note paper, clearly noticeable to everyone in the meeting. Not long after the meeting begins, you must dismiss yourself for a “much needed bathroom break.” Not only did you drink too much coffee on your way to the meeting, but the “fight or flight” state you’re in as a result of sensing you’ve made a bad first impression has made it necessary to relieve yourself. As you walk out the door, you see several board members look at one another with disbelief. You know they must be thinking, “How did this person get chosen to present to the board?” Sound like a scene from a comedy film?

The above example is obviously meant to be an exaggeration of what goes on in meetings across the country. While perhaps not quite so obvious, both men and women are broadcasting in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that they do not have what it takes to be tapped for a career path that leads to the executive suite.

Not only do executives lead their establishments, they many times become the public face of accountability for their organizations. And, it is never so noticeable as when stakes are high. For example, let’s look at James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, during what became known as the “Tylenol Scare” many years ago.

The year was 1982. Somebody when into retail businesses and replaced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, a product that dominated market share for oral, over-the-counter pain relievers, with capsules laced with 10,000 times the amount of cyanide needed to kill a human being. They then put the bottles back on the shelves. Seven people in Chicago were reported to have died as a result.

Overnight Tylenol went from 37% market share to 7% market share. Was Johnson & Johnson responsible for the tampering? No, of course not. But Chairman James Burke took full responsibility and moved immediately to remove 31 million bottles from the shelves, offering to replace the product with another in tablet form, and to do so free of charge.

As a young woman, I remember watching James Burke when he appeared on The Phil Donohue Show to express his deepest sympathy to the families of those who lost loved ones. I remember him talking about all the steps that the company was taking so that something like that would never happen again. He was caring and empathetic and in complete control after a virtual disaster. The way in which Mr. Burke handled himself during a crisis situation gained him tremendous admiration, not only for his leadership decision to pull Tylenol capsules off the market, but for his forthrightness in dealing with the media. Because of the way James Burke dealt with that tragic situation, both he and Johnson & Johnson became heroes. Burke exhibited the epitome of executive presence. He was authentic, clear thinking, able to quickly do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, and came across as genuinely caring and connected to his “audience” in his communication with the American public.

With this in mind, do you know how you come across to people? As I’ve worked with leaders, executives, and sales professionals over the years, it has become clear to me that the very best leaders have what is called Executive Presence.

What does Executive Presence look like?

It is the look and presentation of a genuine, authentic leader. Executive presence can be described as a type of gravitational pull. It’s largely how others perceive you – are you poised, clear, and confident? What does the full picture of you tell others when they meet you?

True, authentic, quality leaders have a way about them that shows through all of their actions. It says that if they are not in leadership that they should be. They are grounded, focused, and they think and speak with clarity. They continue to develop their mind-set and their skill sets, and discipline themselves to do the kind of thinking needed for high quality and high level work. Because their minds, including both their thoughts and emotions, are disciplined, their actions follow suit and it is apparent through all that they do.

For example, a person with Executive Presence:

• Has expertise, able to demonstrate real competence.
• Possesses a positive mental focus, always looking for the opportunity in every situation, either good or bad.
• Exhibits integrity by walking their talk, asking tough questions, making difficult decisions.
• Invites others to engage and collaborate with them.
• Is known to be reliable – they are prompt and prepared—every time.
• They dress professionally.
• They demonstrate stamina and fitness.
• Their people skills are practiced and honed, able to make others feel comfortable in their presence.
• They communicate clearly and effectively, able to read a person or an audience.
• They are able to command the attention of others.
• They are active listeners, demonstrating a genuine interest in others’ points of view.
• They move with purpose and energy, making the most of every day.

Someone with Executive Presence may have charisma, but those two terms should not be thought of as synonymous; they are not interchangeable. Charisma, or the ability to “wow” a crowd, is an attractive personality trait, but it does not necessarily demonstrate positive leadership ability. Hitler had charisma, but he was anything but an effective leader. A leader can have charisma, but just because someone has it doesn’t mean they have the ability to lead others toward success.

The good news is that Executive Presence is something that can be refined and practiced. Find someone that exudes the traits you want to emulate and learn from them. To be at the top, you must earn the ability to be with those at the top.

Become your own best coach. Ask yourself the following questions:
• How would I rate my people skills on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high)? How would other people rate my people skills?
• What does my body language tell others? Do I come across as congruent? Do I possess self-awareness? Does my body language invite others in?
• Do I move with confidence? Am I poised? Who do I trust to ask for feedback so that I can gain some clarification and insight?
• Do I need to gain skill and confidence in speaking to both small and large groups of people? Am I willing to get myself trained?
• Am I aware of my emotions and am I able to express them at the right time and in the right way?
• Am I an active listener? If not, where can I learn to become one?
• How physically fit am I?
• Am I someone who approaches every situation with positive intentions?
• How committed am I to developing the executive presence I need to become my most effective as a leader?

Someone with executive presence doesn’t need to make their presence known because it simple enters the room when they do, and its absence if felt when they leave.


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