Hannah Wilson portrait

Hannah Wilson

Leadership presence is made up of several facets. Presence is the ability to take command of a room, assume a leadership role amongst various audiences, share our thinking and opinion with confidence, and strike a balance between talking and listening such that our communication style is both persuasive and impactful.

Leadership presence is a perception that is deeply rooted in organisational and cultural biases:

  • Perceived confidence through words
  • Perceived confidence through body language
  • Ability to ask clear, meaningful questions
  • Ability to craft and defend a clear point of view
  • Being able to hold steady and participate effectively in debate
  • Being able to stand one’s ground
  • Expressed passion
  • Asking questions at the right “level”

A leader with impressive presence is accomplished at:

  • Adapting to an audience’s energy level, cadence, and needs. For example, for a less engaged group, we as leaders need to be able to rev up the energy, talk more than listen, and lead the conversation; whereas a more engaged, energised group requires more observation and facilitation.
  • Having a certain level of situational awareness and be able to read the room quickly.
  • Tracking with the conversation to determine the right approach toward influence. This requires thinking quickly on our feet, and reading both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Leadership presence is rooted in our basic values – and the “inner work” of knowing our strengths, weaknesses, talents and biases is crucial to aligning people’s impression of us with our best authentic self.

I am currently training with Resilient Leaders Elements to be a consultant coach. The coaching programme, platform and resources are based on 15 years worth of practice-led research from leaders across the world in different sectors. It is distilled down into 4 Elements, and each element is informed by 3 facets.

Leadership Presence is defined by RLE as:

“Being true to yourself, your values and your ethical code, being in service to others and bringing a focus and a bias for achievement to your organisation and to others around you.”

The impact of this element on us as leaders:

“You have presence even when you’re not in the room. The best person takes the lead and is fully supported by all around them, leading to greater effectiveness and better results. People know each other well enough to anticipate other’s actions and to act accordingly.”

As leaders we need to have presence and be aware of our presence. Our presence is shaped by how we show up, how we connect and how we commit:

  • Authenticity: demonstrating integrity and conviction, operating to your values and your ethics, being true to yourself.
  • Serving: the needs of others are the priority; you are committed to the development of people.
  • Intentional: remaining focused on the purpose of the organisation, to be positive and appreciative rather than criticising; having personal energy and a bias for achievement.

Leadership presence can also be referred to as gravitas. I am often asked by people who I coach to help them build their gravitas.

Gravitas is a quality that a leader exudes because she chooses to say and do only what is important. Others grant her respect and pay particular attention to what she says and does because she knows that she adds weight or value to any situation in which she speaks.

Gravitas is confidence and expertise. It gives weight to our thoughts, words and actions, causing others to gravitate towards us. It is knowing our stuff, which gives us a credible, influential voice. To develop it, we first need to give value to ourselves, our thoughts and knowledge. We then need to become a subject matter expert in our area and show that we are able to answer any question thrown at us in a calm and collected way.

“I gravitate towards gravitas”.
Morgan Freeman

There is a lot of advice out there about how we as leaders can develop our presence and expand our gravitas. I have summarised some of the articles I have read below.
Firstly, we need to establish our leadership presence – here are 10 tips to consider (especially useful if you are new to leadership, new to role or new to an organisation):

  1. Show up as a whole person
  2. Lead with what we care about
  3. Begin a conversation that others want to continue
  4. Focus through your body
  5. Cultivate sustainable curiosity
  6. Start by standing still
  7. Find the story in everything
  8. Hold something back
  9. Investigate your impact
  10. Build our “muscle memory”

If you are established as a leader but want to improve your presence then consider these tips to further enhance how you are seen:

  1. Boost your self-confidence and manage your self-doubt. To boost your confidence, adjust your physical posture so you are standing up straight – channel Amy Cuddy’s Power Pose.
  2. Remind yourself: “What’s on their face is not about me.” Confident leaders maintain their composure at all times – staying calm is key to improving your leadership presence.
  3. Stay credible. Credibility revolves around body language and communication. However, certain words — like “because” — automatically increase one’s credibility as it adds weight to what you are saying.
  4. Invest in social capital. Your connections with others and your social relationships add value. Connect in a more powerful way with others – instead of focusing on how you can promote yourself, think about how you can help them.
  5. Send two sets of body language signals. Showing confident body language will highlight your power and status, while open body language accentuates warmth and inclusiveness. By sending a perfect mixture of both, you will improve your leadership presence.

If you do not yet have the leadership presence you want, keep working through these 12 elements until you have discovered the influence that belongs to you and they have become positive habits.

  1. Develop your character: Your character should never be silent. It needs to have a voice that reflects your heart and soul. When you lead with character, you give the essence of your identity.
  2. Mind your attitude: Your attitude as a leader influences those around you, whether it is negative or positive. It will be felt by those around you more quickly than your actions. A great leadership presence is practised not so much in words as in attitudes and in actions.
  3. Everything you wear has an expression: How you look and how you dress are important. Appearances make the first impression, so make sure your outward appearance reflects who you are inwardly – represent yourself authentically and appropriately.
  4. Respect is the presence of everything: Great leaders build presence by practising respect in three ways: respect for self, respect for others, and responsibility for actions. Without respect and responsibility true leadership presence is impossible.
  5. Master competency: Great leaders do not tell people what they know but show others how it is done. You have to be proficient in your field and an expert with your skills to have a presence in your leadership.
  6. Cultivate communication: You need the skills to inform others, engage with others, and advise others in a clear and concise way that can be implemented and followed. The art of communication is the language of leadership.
  7. Pay attention, your body is speaking: People may not always tell you how they feel, but they will always show you what they are thinking—you just have to pay attention to their presence. Body language sends clear message, even when people are not speaking. Make sure your own body language is consistent with what you say; do not contradict yourself.
  8. Emotional intelligence: Intelligence is important, but emotional intelligence matters more. It gives you the ability to understand yourself and others, a critical component of creating presence.
  9. Accountability is your responsibility: To have presence is to accept responsibility for your actions and be accountable for your results. Without accountability there is no presence in leadership. Hold yourself to account and be responsible for everything you say and do, moreover for the impact it has on others.
  10. Motivation comes from within: A true leadership presence motivates and inspires others – to share a vision, to take initiative, to work towards a common purpose, to work together to accomplish tasks and to achieve goals. Be close enough to relate but be far enough to keep people moving forward.
  11. Integrity is always the purpose: Some people think leadership is all about power, but actually it is all about having integrity. Having integrity means choosing your thoughts and actions based on your values and not on your personal gain.
  12. Reputation builds perception: When you have a leadership presence, it becomes a central part of your reputation. When your reputation is built on your character, it is who you really are that defines how others see you.

Presence is much more than just being there, it is about adding value and making a difference for yourself and those around you. Leadership presence is seen externally but needs working on internally. Leading from within, leading ourselves stems from having a strong core.

Imagine your gravitas as an internal light bulb, the more confident, the more energy and the more authentic you become, the brighter that light shines. This light then emits from your body, through everything you say and do to create a powerful presence.

We thus need to focus on the inner work, before we can focus on the outer work. Through coaching and training you can break down and flex each of the individual components that together create a powerful whole. Hold on to your power and do not give it away. Fill the space – both physically and vocally, do not shrink and hide. Communicate confidently – reframe apologetic language, do not diminish yourself and avoid self-deprecation.

Be authentic. Be in service. Be intentional.