“It’s so easy to get distracted by what other people think, do, or say. But they don’t live your life. You need to know what you want and who you are, and you have to convey it to others quickly so that you shine at first impression.” – Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer, Burberry
At a recent executive breakfast that I facilitated, I began by asking everyone to share the name of a woman they considered a model of executive presence. The answers ranged from Mother Teresa to Margaret Thatcher. Believe it or not, that combination makes perfect sense, despite the radical differences between the two women, because each one’s executive presence was rooted in the unshakeable force of her belief. I call it her “aura of authority.”
Do you possess a force of belief that immediately expresses, without words, the depth of your conviction, commitment, and competence? In other words: do you know what drives you? And how deeply do you remain connected with that drive?
The essence of executive presence is that inner force. Call it belief, call it confidence, call it charisma. It may be tough to nail down, but it’s absolutely visible, even palpable. Kind of like porn. You know it when you see it, but it’s hard for even the Supreme Court to define.
So how do you cultivate executive presence? And how do you cultivate executive presence as a woman in a male-defined culture? Here’s a summary of the ingredients we identified together at the breakfast:
What does confidence look like? It’s a physical sense of ease. No tightness or tension spots. It’s clear breathing inside/out, an easy flow throughout the musculature. A bodily sense of connection that actually “swings” (like President Obama bounding off that helicopter on the White House lawn).
One executive invoked her aunt as an exemplar of executive presence, because “she was always calm.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? Do you want to follow the one who gets flustered, or the one who remains the calm eye at the center of the storm? Whom would you prefer to follow into battle? As one advisor says to the aspiring prime minister in “The Iron Lady,” “you must learn to calm down to be taken seriously.” Practice radiating energy that is soothing and whole, not fragmented and anxious.
How powerful is your posture? Executive presence is a complex phenomenon, and there is no “silver bullet.” But if I had to offer only one piece of advice, I’d say: improve your posture. Because posture is how we tell the world how comfortable we are in our skins, and how intentionally we project ourselves out into the world. Posture consists of two elements: first, the grounded power in your pelvis that connects you to the earth, and second, the graceful lift of the chest. Visualize the silhouette of modern dancer Isadora Duncan. Her mantra was: strength at the core, lightness at the edges.
Where is your focus when you’re with other people? In the last meeting? In the next one? On your electronic-device-of-choice? Be the one who’s always present and attentive and mindful of people as individuals. It’s not just respectful, it’s seductive.
How much space do you claim, literally and metaphorically? Do you narrow your body (cross your legs, your arms) so you take up as little space as possible? Or are you expansive, with an open chest and arms akimbo? Do you sit in the back row, or up front? Maybe even next to the alpha? Your choices tell the world where you position yourself. And if you don’t position yourself front and center, why should anyone else?
In a male-defined culture, women face a double bind. We’re exhorted to step up, but we’re penalized if we’re “too” authoritative, or capable, or assertive . . . In academic-speak, women are expected to behave in a traditionally feminine “communal” way and often get zapped if they act in too much of a traditionally male “agentic” way. The only way out of this dilemma is to master both sets of tactics and deploy them strategically at every turn. Depending upon your immediate and corporate/client culture, know when to smile, and when to hold your smile.
There is no one way that a leader looks. “Toughness,” Cal. Senator Dianne Feinstein has observed, “doesn’t have to come in a pinstripe suit.” At the end of the day, the executive, or the leader, is the one who knows herself so well, so unflinchingly, that she understands how to present herself to best and immediate effect. For me, for example, there is nothing empowering about teetering in pumps that only serve to emphasize my derriere and legs. I’m all about the power of being smart and clear and grounded. Give me a sturdy kitten heel and I’m ready to take on the world.