In the opening scene of “Casablanca,” an employee walks through the casino with a paper in his hand. He arrives at a table and reaches across it to hand the paper to an unseen recipient. Viewers only see the recipient writing his signature authorizing a payment of 1,000 francs with the words “Rick-OK.” The camera slowly pans up to Humphrey Bogart’s face, and the viewers see Rick Blaine.
From the opening scene, Rick establishes that he’s the boss, and in the end, he has the executive presence to do the right thing.
Executive presence is demonstrating the judgment to do the right thing—to be the leader who will get the job done with integrity and inspire others to fully commit to the task, mission and vision. Mark W. Sickles, an advisor to corporate boards, says, “When executives with presence walk into the room, people think, ‘Now something good is going to happen.’ These leaders are respected for the job they’re doing, not just the job they’re in.”
Can a leader acquire executive presence? The answer is yes. Can any leader acquire executive presence? Though all executives can improve, it’s probably not within everyone’s reach to the same degree. How does a leader acquire executive presence? The answer is simple to explain but takes work and time to achieve.
1. Build a foundation.
Experience and a successful track record are a good start, but developing them involves more than just putting in time and delivering the numbers. Like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, executive presence emerges gradually throughout a career.
2. Establish trust.
Over time, leaders earn the trust of followers and other stakeholders. Both trust and distrust are developed by the rule of three: One instance is an aberration, two are a trend and three are a law. After time and more evidence, trust is either firmly established or permanently lost based on whether stakeholders have seen consistent success or consistent failure.
3. Manage yourself intellectually and emotionally.
Potential leaders develop the ability to manage and lead themselves before they’re able to manage and lead others. If executives are unable to lead and manage themselves, they’ll never be able to lead and manage others.
According to John Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Woodcraft Industries, leaders who lack self-management skills also lack intellectual skills in risk analysis: “They fail to consider the consequences of their decisions, positive and negative, and they’re unable to predict what will happen next. They also lack decision-making discipline. Decisions are reflexive rather than reflective.”
Emotionally-based decisions rarely translate into productive actions. “Insecure people are revealed under pressure. They fail to address their weaknesses because they fail to admit their weaknesses to themselves.”
4. Manage your relationships.
Just like self-management, relationship management is a matter of the heart and the head. Leaders set the direction with their heads and then engage their employees with their hearts. They are able to digest abstract concepts and turn them into practical action: “This is where we’re going, and this is how we’re going to get there.”
“The vision becomes reality,” says David Zumwalt, executive director of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park Corporation (RTPark). “The strategy becomes achievable and people recognize that.”
David Cardenas of Olympus Partners witnessed leaders with executive presence who are able to manage internally and externally: “Position power means nothing outside the organization. While it’s important to manage downward and align people to the vision, it’s equally important to manage upward and outward. The ability to persuade people is crucial. If the leader relies too heavily on his position within the organization, then he’ll never be effective outside the organization.”
Do the Right Thing Effectively and Authentically
In the end, executive presence is about authenticity. Leaders display executive presence by doing the right thing in the right way with consistent results. The leader strives to find solutions without cutting corners. “People won’t go all-in if they don’t trust the top guy,” says Fitzpatrick. Without trust, employees resort to “survivalism”: paying more attention to their personal agendas than the organizational mission.
Executive presence is a result of the head and heart working together to their maximum capabilities. “Judgment and wisdom, character and courage—these are the things that effective leaders convey consistently” says Sickles. “They do the right thing.”