Gravitas is the Key Factor in Executive Presence

Lonely Businessman Facing Financial DepressionWhat do you think is the single most defining characteristic of executive presence?

In the Center for Talent Innovation survey of senior leaders, 67% say that gravitas is the most important defining element of executive presence. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success there are three factors that create presence in a leader:

  1. How you act as a leader: gravitas
  2. How you speak: communication skills
  3. How you look: appearances

But what exactly is gravitas?  An online dictionary says it’s substance, weightiness, a serious or dignified demeanor, formality in bearing and appearances. If you ask me, those descriptions don’t do much to clarify what a leader needs to do to act with gravitas. Sure I get it, but it’s still vague. In Hewlett’s book, gravitas is broken down into six aspects, based on survey responses from senior leaders:

  1. Confidence and “grace under fire:” 79%
  2. Decisiveness and “showing teeth:” 70%
  3. Integrity and “speaking truth to power”: 64%
  4. Emotional intelligence: 61%
  5. Reputation and standing/”pedigree”: 56%
  6. Vision/charisma: 50%

Gravitas is the very essence of EP. Without it, you simply won’t be perceived as a leader, no matter what your title or level of authority, no matter how well you dress or speak. Gravitas, according to 62% of the leaders we surveyed, is what signals to the world you’re made of the right stuff and can be entrusted with serious responsibility. ~ Sylvia Ann Hewlett

So how do you acquire more gravitas and how do you express it? How do you improve your presence so that you’re seen as a leader with strong potential?

If you look at the roller coaster economy and business scandals of the last fifteen years, it’s not surprising that we’re drawn to leaders who keep their promises, who are transparent and honest, who keep their cool under fire, and show compassion along with courage when making hard decisions. Even so, there may be more examples of those who failed that come to mind than those who didn’t fail.

For sure, often courage and grace is strengthened in times of crisis. To borrow from Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, like teabags, we don’t know how strong we are until we’re in hot water.

While avoiding catastrophe may demonstrate a leader’s competence, it is handling catastrophe that confers gravitas.

All leaders face serious mistakes. There will be accidents, some out of your control. Mistakes will be made by both you and others you trusted. According to Hewlett:

Each of these represents, however, a monumental opportunity to acquire and exude gravitas: to reach within yourself, at the height of the storm, for that eye of calm, and to speak and act from that place of clarity. Because when you demonstrate that your confidence cannot be shaken, you inspire confidence in others. At worst, you’ll win their forgiveness and forbearance. Very possibly, you’ll win their trust and loyalty.

What do you think about gravitas? Is it something you’ve thought about or worked on as part of your presence? I’d love to hear your thoughts You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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Executive Presence: Got It?

Executive-PresenceI think executive presence is frequently misunderstood. We think of “presence” as a star quality seen in those business leaders who exude confidence and charisma and who shine at conferences and networking events. Most of us think of presence as a fuzzy quality we probably need more of for that next promotion, but aren’t quite sure how to develop it.

I think it’s much more crucial than that. Executive presence has nothing to do with becoming someone you’re not, rather, it’s about being more of who you already are.

According to author Kristi Hedges in The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, presence has become one of the key success factors for professionals today. Organizations are bringing in coaches to help cultivate it. It is showing up in performance reviews and people are getting hired, fired and promoted based on it. Read More »

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Leadership Stories: How Personal Should You Be?

Leadership-StoriesJust how personal should you be when you craft a leadership story designed to persuade people? I guess it depends on your audience… or does it?

I’ve known keynote speakers who use stories of a parent’s death or illness to make a dramatic point and get their audience emotionally engaged. Sometimes it comes across as sappy and manipulative. However, done well, it can be both touching and effective.

Yet, beware. This approach to storytelling with emotional impact has become formulaic. It can backfire. Read More »

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Leadership Presence: Use Stories to Connect Head and Heart

Leadership-Presence-Tortoise-HareIf you want to build strong leadership presence, pay attention to the stories you share.

Have you ever noticed what happens in a conference room full of people when the speaker starts telling stories? People sit up and lean in toward the speaker. They put down their smart phones, stop texting and start to pay attention. It’s not just in conference rooms either. The minute your boss tells you a personal story, you listen intensely because stories give you a glimpse into people’s true passions.

As a speaker, telling stories can help you naturally express yourself in a manner that’s powerfully congruent. You don’t need to be a particularly accomplished or trained speaker to come across as genuine and interesting. When you tell a personal story, your voice, body and emotions line up naturally to create authenticity.

Stories help you express emotion in two ways:

  1. They give you permission to take on roles, speak in the voices of others. Heightened expression is almost expected when you tell a good story.
  2. Stories generate emotional responses from your audience. Read More »
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Leadership Presence: 3 Ways to Be More Expressive


I’ve been reading a lot about executive presence lately and, in particular, I am intrigued about how leaders express themselves in presentations and speeches, as well as in everyday conversations.

In today’s business environment, we expect clarity and congruency from leaders. They need to be comfortable expressing their emotions and any discrepancy between message and expression shows up and distracts from building leadership trust.

It seems to me that some people have a natural talent for “sounding” and “looking” like credible leaders. And there are several experts who would have us believe that presence is something all leaders can acquire through practice and coaching. Read More »

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Leadership Presence: Make an Emotional Impact

Leadership-Pesence-ImpactIf you’re thinking about how you can improve your leadership presence (including how well you’re perceived as a candidate for promotion), pay attention to your next presentation. You may need more than a good speech. You’ll need to make an emotional impact through voice and body language.

It’s nothing new: the most important factor in determining the impact of a leader’s message is body language and whether he/she looks confident, grounded and sure of themselves. Next is whether the leader’s tone of voice radiates clarity, energy and passion. The least important determinant of the impact of communication are the actual words spoken.

We know this. And yet, when it comes to making a presentation, most of us spend 99% of our time and effort crafting the words and only 1% on how we’re going to say them. Read More »

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Leadership Quest: How to Become an Inspirational Leader


If you could have any quality you want in your job as a manager or leader, what would that be? How about becoming an inspirational leader?

I ask this question of my coaching clients. Many have specific “wants” like be a better motivator, or achieve better numbers next quarter, or get that next promotion. or have more “executive presence.” But one in particular floats to the forefront: “I want to be a more inspirational leader.”

As we drill down to define what that means, I hear words like “motivation,” “influence,” “collaboration,” and “cooperation.” Most agree they want to go beyond just getting others to do what needs to be done. The people I work with in coaching sessions want their people to be inspired do the work to get results in which ever way is best, using their own talents and wisdom.  They want to give people autonomy to do the work that needs to be done with energy and passion. Read More »

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Executive Presence: A Serious Look at What Really Matters

man looking at clock and business strategy on a wall

In the work I do coaching leaders on executive presence, I can usually differentiate when someone wants to “look good” vs “do good.” While your physical bearing is important, your core values and the way you communicate them are even more significant.

“We need leaders who model high social intelligence…who appeal to our higher selves and invite us to grow as individuals and as a society, rather than leaders who pander to our primal fears and selfish greed.” Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009)

An infectious grin and authentic sense of camaraderie will open doors, but the ability to communicate sincerely and connect with core values is what inspires people to respond. Read More »

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6 Steps for Building Executive Presence

6-Steps-to-Executive-PresenceExecutive presence isn’t like great art in that everybody sees it differently. It’s built on learning more about yourself and how you come across to others. Then it takes deliberate practice to implement best ways to make a stronger impression as a good leader. You can’t do this alone. You’ll absolutely need a mentor or executive coach.

In SocialIntelligence: TheNewScienceofSuccess  (Pfeiffer, 2009), management consultant KarlAlbrecht encourages readers to work on the following dimensions to build executive presence: Read More »

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Executive Presence: Stronger with Leadership Storytelling

Executive-Presence-StorytellingSome executives have a knack for telling stories that explain a concept in vivid terms and inspire actions. If you don’t have that natural talent, you can increase your executive presence when you learn to use stories in a way that’s effective. Here’s why it’s so important.

The art of storytelling is a key element of leadership communications and a vital part of building executive presence. Cold, hard facts don’t inspire people to change. Straightforward analysis doesn’t excite anyone about a goal. A good story does. Here’s an example from one of my coaching clients. Read More »

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