Why executive presence is a leader’s x-factor

A group of people sat around a table in an office having an animated discussion.

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I’m a reality TV show tragic. 

Not for the renovation, cooking, dating, or surviving the jungle kind of program. But tempt me with any Idol, X-Factor, Voice, or even some [Anywhere’s] Got Talent action, and I’m completely hooked. I also have a very high success rate in picking the winner at a very early point in the competition. 

Do I want Simon Cowell’s job? For sure! Do I want to be spinning around in one of those big red chairs during a blind audition? You bet! Can I spot ‘star quality’? I like to think so. 

But back in the real world and away from the hype of propelling some complete unknown to stardom in a matter of weeks, as a recruiter I used to think I could also quickly spot a candidate with true potential. For the most part, I’d be ‘on the money’ around who in my shortlist would impress the client enough to ultimately get the job. Having said that, there was one occasion that I still vividly remember, simply because it caught me completely off guard. 

I had a very solid shortlist, but one candidate in particular was a standout. 

When I was debriefing with the client after he had interviewed all four candidates, and I asked him what he thought of my ‘sure thing’, he simply said, “He just lacked executive presence.” 

I sat there in silence. In my mind this candidate oozed executive presence and was absolutely perfect for the Global Account Director role I had put him forward for. 

“He was wearing Tweety Pie socks”, he continued. 

What I wanted to say was, “there’s a lot more to executive presence than the pattern on someone’s socks” but I chose not to. 

Despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t going to budge. Whether Sylvester or Bugs Bunny socks could potentially have made a difference, I’ll never know. But I quickly found my Tweety Pie candidate a great opportunity with another client who immediately noticed the same ‘star power’ that I’d seen, and he would go on to impress some of world’s biggest brands as a Global Account Lead for a top-tier advertising agency. 

Whilst presentation is certainly an important element that might contribute to one’s executive presence, there are many other tactics to help ensure that potential employers, key stakeholders, and of course team members have confidence, respect, and trust in your ability as a leader. 

So, how can you display gravitas as a leader? 

Gravitas is another way to describe executive presence.  

It’s not about exerting authority or engaging in power plays. It is, however, about the way you embody various leadership traits, including commanding a room, displaying confidence and charisma, communicating articulately, as well as holding the attention and gaining the trust of those around you. 

Looking at these traits, if you think you’re noticing some overlap with ‘star quality’, you’d be right. 

Who would you consider to exude gravitas?

Perhaps a world leader, an actor, the host of a TED talk, a former professor, or boss? Personally, I immediately think of two CNN anchors – Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper, simply because of the executive presence they display in every interview they conduct, their cool demeanor in often incredibly high-pressure situations, and the respect they command from their guests.  

Whether it’s in a physical room or a Zoom room, as a leader, how would you describe your ability to: 

  • Inspire those around you 
  • Remain laser focused 
  • Engage your team members through story telling 
  • Define the culture and articulate your vision 
  • Maintain your composure and confidence under pressure 
  • Act with dignity and humility 

One of the most important things to note here is that it is very difficult to fake executive presence.  

I remember attending a conference a few years ago in the USA. One of the keynote speakers was certainly fairly impressive, but something about her didn’t sit well with me. Shortly afterwards, at one of the networking sessions, I happened to overhear another delegate unashamedly telling those around him that he worked directly for the speaker and that, in reality, she was a “passive aggressive bully who is so out of her depth and couldn’t even manage herself out of a wet paper bag”. 

Probably not quite the executive presence she was hoping to portray … to her own team members. 

Two of the most important traits of a leader with executive presence are the ability to communicate with impact and active listening – both of which we have written about in the past. 

This means that whether you are communicating in person or remotely that you speak articulately, concisely, and with enthusiasm, and that you carefully proof-read any written communication (internal and external).

Research has shown that communicating with impact and influence is the number one leadership trait but less than one third of employees feel their leaders display this effectively. 

When it comes to active listening, leaders who display gravitas don’t finish other people’s sentences, never become preoccupied with their own thoughts when other people are speaking, always maintain eye contact, never dominate the conversation, and above all keep the conversation on what the speaker is saying – not on what interests them. 

Contestants in the singing competitions I referred to above who mimic other pop stars may proceed to the second round, but typically don’t get much further, because they never find their own unique individual star quality – the X-factor that the judges are so desperate to spot. 

Whilst you may admire certain traits of various leaders with executive presence, it’s important that you create your own style. You are unique, so let your team see your unique presence. Regardless of your level of leadership experience, executive presence can be cultivated and developed over time. It’s never too late to strive for gravitas. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders build a level of executive presence that is respected by all those around them.  

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