The Power of Executive Presence

In my work as an executive coach, I have the privilege of working with some of health care’s finest and most effective nursing leaders and their teams. Whether they are at the helm of large organizations, or serving as managers with smaller spheres of influence, these individuals embody an intangible characteristic that signals strength, dignity, direction, and focus. In my recent book, I call this quality “valor,” and its manifestation is always unique. Other appropriate terms are “courageous,” “inspiring,” and “visionary.” Regardless of which words appeal to us, what is important about all of them is that they convey a leader’s own version of “executive presence.”

What does it mean to possess executive presence? The word “presence” is ubiquitous in current leadership literature because it is profoundly important. Managers and leaders with executive presence have the skill to stay grounded, express authority, and lead powerfully on a regular basis. At the same time, they remain true to themselves. They are comfortable in their own skin, and even when they receive information that ruffles them, they know what to do to regain their composure.

Yet, leaders with “executive presence” are more than just authentic and grounded. They also have the capacity to stand by their agenda and relate to the rest of us. These leaders are not distracted. Instead, they hold to their beliefs as they remain in the dialogue that is their work. They do this through corporate highs and lows. They do it through professional relationship highs and lows, too, whether those relationships are one on one, inside a team, or in a larger organizational setting.

Just how important is executive presence? In my experience, executive presence is a requisite skill and “way of being” for the healthcare and nurse managers who are most effective in guiding others, regardless of the specific environmental challenges they face. For another perspective, consider AONE’s Nurse Executive Competencies 1. These competencies are positioned as capabilities for managers at all levels; executive presence might be considered foundational for at least 2 of the 5 categories: communication/relationship-building and leadership. Here are some ways to develop and increase your own executive presence:

1. Call to mind leaders who, in your opinion, possess executive presence. What qualities do they possess, and what is the impact of those qualities on you? Do you have these qualities? What is your impact on others? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, ask for feedback from several people you trust.

2. Consider the effect of your body language. Notice whether you stand tall and straight, and how you position yourself when you speak with others. Observe whether your arms are routinely folded across your chest; this can suggest that you are not open to them or their input. Become conscious of how much eye contact you maintain. If your daily routine precludes you from observing your own body language, pay close attention to the reactions others have to you.

3. Reduce distractions. Most of us have too much on our plates, but leaders with executive presence manage the perception that they are too busy. They stay focused, and they want you to do the same thing. They, too, have many pulls on their time and attention, but they are able to compartmentalize. They don’t become distracted by what’s not relevant in a given task or conversation. When their attention is diverted for a few minutes, they readily return to their agenda.

4. Develop self-awareness, understanding, and compassion for yourself. How often do you notice how you are feeling emotionally and physically? When you do, do you take a few minutes for self-care when it can improve the way you are leading and communicating?

5. Notice how you are relating to others. Are you asking more than telling? Are you connecting with your colleagues authentically and with an approach that will enhance your relationships and your outcomes? Are you appreciating their efforts, and listening to understand versus to judge?

6. Consider how much confidence you convey. If you are a newer manager or leader and could use more confidence, are you accessing the resources that will help you develop your skills and your unique executive presence? If you have accomplished a lot in your career or on your job, do you “own” these successes? Have you mined these and other experiences for the lessons they can teach you? Do you deflate or inflate the significance of your contributions when you are interacting with others?

7. Have you unearthed the learning from parts of your journey that were not successful? Leaders with executive presence learn from all their experiences, not just their successes. The authority they convey and the admiration they evoke are frequently inspired by both wisdom and humility.

8. Know how to get your poise back. As noted above, even leaders with the most composure lose it from time to time. To regain your executive presence, your most readily available resource is your breath. Breathing brings calmness and the capacity to redirect your attention to what is most important. In addition, if you have a vision for yourself as a truly effective leader, call it to mind. What adjustments can you make to help you achieve your vision?

9. Practice. If you want to strengthen or develop new behaviors that demonstrate your unique executive presence, try them out. You may want to experiment by walking with more confidence, pausing to think before you speak, making more eye contact, and adjusting your ratio of telling versus asking and listening. Practice these behaviors in “safe” settings at first, and keep at it if the shifts feel uncomfortable when you start. Elicit feedback on what’s working from those you trust, and keep doing those things that send the message you want to convey.

Executive presence is a way of being that is worth cultivating. Indeed,  it is a uniquely effective “signature” for nurse leaders and managers who can combine it with their clinical knowledge and leadership skill to inspire others and lead with clarity.

(This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.)
1. AONE. Nurse Executive Competencies, 2011. Accessed April 18, 2014.
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