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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The "Secret Sauce" Leaders Have and How You Can Get it, Too

You’ve probably heard that part of what it takes to get promoted at work, advance in your career, and inspire others to follow you is having “executive presence” or “leadership presence.” But what does that actually mean?

Years ago, I was invited to speak on this very topic at a leadership conference for a Wall Street investment bank. In a planning call with the conference sponsors, we discussed the talking points I was going to cover.

“You should start with a definition of leadership presence,” one of them suggested, making me pause. It had seemed so obvious until I was asked to put it into words—but I couldn’t think of one. In a moment of minor panic, I stalled by asking the four leaders on the conference call to describe how they would define leadership presence. Silence ensued. They seemed as stymied I was!

“Is it like charisma?” asked one. “And you either have it or you don’t?”

Then, one of the youngest managing directors spoke up. “Leadership presence is almost impossible to define,” she said, “but we all know it when we see it.”

“Bam!” I thought to myself, and went so far as to ask her if I could use those very words as my opening definition for my conference session. For she had put my own feelings about leadership presence into a succinct non-definition: impossible to define, but we know it when we see it.

A little more specifically, Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, authors of Leadership Presence describe a leader’s presence like this: “When they enter a room, the energy level rises. You perk up, stop what you’re doing, and focus on them. You expect something interesting to happen. It’s as though a spotlight shines on them. What is it they have? They have presence.”

Others have weighed in with their own definitions to attempt to clear up the matter. “They elicit a natural response to follow them,” says Nina Simosko, the head of strategy, planning, and operations for Nike Technology. “It’s almost as if they have ‘leadership pheromones.’”

In all these examples of definitions, you hear lots of enthusiasm and vivid imagery, but few clues about how to attain the elusive quality for yourself. So you’ve got to feel for any young aspiring leader, who on his or her performance evaluation gets told, “We’d love to promote you, but you lack leadership presence.” It’s hard enough to figure out what that means, let alone know what to do next.

Two Components of Leadership Presence

Another expert who has researched leadership presence—what it is and how to build it—is Amy Cuddy at Harvard Business School. (As a follow-up, watch her TED talk on power poses here, which includes some great tips about body language.)

It was a light bulb moment when I came across what Cuddy and her colleagues wrote about two traits that are most influential in determining whether a person is perceived as an effective leader.

The authors explained, “When we judge others—especially our leaders—we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence).” And just like that, they had boiled down the essence of leadership presence into two qualities: warmth and authority.

Communicating Warmth and Authority

I’ve found that one of the best ways to improve your leadership presence is to observe it in a leader you look up to—in person or online—and determine how they convey those two key traits. YouTube can be a great resource to find videos of leaders giving interviews or keynotes, like these:

Watch carefully, and find a style of leadership presence that you like—one that might feel comfortable for you. Once you find a style you’d like to emulate, try the following exercise: Watch one minute of your selected speaker four separate times, paying attention to a very specific element each time:

1. Turn the sound off. What body language do they use to convey warmth and authority?

For example, when Indra Nooyi chit chats with an interviewer, there’s a twinkle in her eye accompanied by a genuine smile. But when their conversation turns to business, Nooyi’s smile fades, replaced by an array of powerful hand gestures that convey authority. Once her point is made, she smiles again, switching seamlessly back to warmth.

2. Listen to the sound only, without watching. What vocal tone, pace, and intonations do they use that convey warmth and authority?

When John Chambers delivers a keynote, he speaks rapidly, his pitch constantly rising and falling. You can’t help but feel engaged and excited. Occasionally he slows down, maintains a single pitch, and pauses with for emphasis. It’s all authority. You know to sit up and take note.

3. Sound only, again. What words do they use to convey warmth and authority?

Sheryl Sandberg’s language is polished, without a single “um” or “ah.” But listening only to her voice without any visual clues, I found this style almost too flawless to be relatable. In contrast, John Donahoe’s plain-spoken, imperfect, everyday language came across as likeable and down-to-earth.

4. Finally, watch with the sound on.

Look for anything that undermines the speaker’s warmth and authority, such as a nervous laugh, lack of genuine smile, or over-reliance on a single gesture.

When you’re done watching all four times, make a list of things you’d like to do more of as a leader. This is a great exercise to do with a friend because you can bounce ideas off of each other about what works and what doesn’t.

At the end of the day, this exercise can help put a more distinct definition on what your own personal brand of “leadership presence” will look like.

Photo of conductor courtesy of Shutterstock.