How to develop your presence as a leader

July 1, 2013

Executive presence is an essential element of effective leadership according to Muriel Maignan Wilkins and Amy Jen Su, co-authors of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence. Wilkins spoke recently with Tom Fox, guest writer for On Leadership, about how federal leaders can develop their own authentic executive presence. Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and heads up their Center for Government Leadership. Wilkins and Su are co-founders of Isis Associates, an executive coaching and training firm.

Q. Executive presence is a buzz word that's been used with increasing frequency these days. What does it mean to you?

Courtesy of Muriel Wilkins
Courtesy of Muriel Wilkins

A. Leadership presence is really the ability to do two things very well. The first is to demonstrate your value, whether to one person or to hundreds of thousands of people, in an authentic way. The second is to connect well with your stakeholders. It means being authentic, comfortable in your skin, and getting your message across while connecting with those around you. That’s leadership presence.

What are some common myths surrounding the concept of leadership presence?

The first is the myth of “you are who you are,” meaning that people who have presence are people who are naturally born with it. We’ve proven in our work that this is not true. Having leadership presence is really about being adaptable and catering your style to the situation that you're in. The second myth is the idea that leadership presence looks only one way. People end up mimicking the leaders of their organizations and faking it rather than being authentic.

The last myth is that once you have leadership presence, you don't need to do anything else, that there's one way of being. While you might have a presence that really works well in one situation or in one role, as you move on to other roles you need to adapt your presence to that situation. What makes you successful in one situation isn’t necessarily what will make you successful in the next.

How did you develop your leadership presence and what obstacles did you face?

Both myself and my co-author Amy Su experienced difficulties in developing our own presence. Early in my career, I was a very strong performer in my work, but I was constantly told that I was coming off too strong. I had to hear that feedback and take a really hard look at it, and as a result, I found that I wasn’t connecting with certain stakeholders. I had to become a lot more cognizant of how I interacted with my peers in terms of my tone as well as my facial expressions. Now is the journey over? Absolutely not. But I've learned how to get my point across in a way that doesn't alienate others and I’ve recognized that I have to do that to be an effective leader.

What advice would you give emerging federal leaders seeking to develop their personal leadership presence?

They should recognize that developing it is not about changing who you are. It's about broadening your repertoire. It's like when you play tennis and have a strong forehand—that's great for your game, but you've got to learn how to use your backhand as effectively. I think what has happened with emerging leaders is they have become successful based on their technical skills, but they need to recognize that leadership is not just about technical skills. Soft-skill capabilities are particularly important. As I mentioned earlier, it is also important to get feedback and to listen to it. And finally, it’s important to think about the three aspects of your leadership presence: the assumptions that you bring to every situation, the communication skills that you use and the physical aspects of your presence.

How can federal managers communicate more effectively with their employees and with the American public?

I think the biggest mistake senior leaders make is that they don't meet their employees where they are. Let's take an example of implementing change in an organization. So often it is business as usual—they just keep on charging through their decisions rather than taking the time to really listen to their employees or demonstrate some level of empathy. Empathy doesn't mean that you're agreeing with them, just that you can understand where they're coming from. Too many leaders forget that step and until you can do that, it's very hard to motivate and inspire people to move forward.

In terms of communicating with the public, many senior leaders frame their message based on what's important to them rather than framing the message in a way that resonates with the public. We've got to figure out why our vision matters to people and then communicate it in a way that's real to them.

Are there any individuals, either in the public or private sector, who exemplify the leadership presence you describe?

We used Al Gore as an example in our book. When he was running for office, there was a level of inauthenticity where he couldn't quite connect with people and he seemed almost robotic. Then all of a sudden he shows up in the global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and everybody's like, “Who is this man? Why didn't he show up like this during the 2000 presidential campaign?” The difference was that he was conveying a message he was passionate about and, from a leadership standpoint, it is critical that you find that inner passion around your message. We also shared the example of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He's not a loud, charismatic, light-up-the-room type of guy, yet he has a tremendous presence because he's able to concentrate on his vision and to communicate it in a way that makes people listen.

Finally, exceptional leaders recognize that they're not going to get it right every single time and when they don’t, they're able to course-correct. That’s huge in terms of leadership presence and their impact as a leader.

Read also:

Decision making in the federal government

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