Do You Have Executive Presence?

We all know what it takes to succeed as a leader: hard work, intelligence, determination, luck. While those may be important, it turns out that they may not even approach the impact of one other key dimension: executive presence. In a recent study conducted by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and a team of researchers at the Center for Talent Innovation, the senior leaders surveyed listed executive presence – being perceived as leadership material – as the essential factor in determining who gets ahead in an organization.

The study surveyed 18 focus groups, 4,000 college-degreed professionals, 50 personal interviews and 268 senior-level executives and concluded that leadership positions are most often given to those who look the part. Attributes like hard work and past performance are important, but the study’s biggest finding was that executive presence is a requirement for top leadership positions.

But what exactly is executive presence?

Hewlett and her team also sought to deconstruct executive presence by defining the three components that help a leader look the part:

Communication. Excellent speaking skills, active listening and assertiveness are required skills for leaders. In addition to interpersonal communication, leaders need the ability to read an audience or situation and craft the appropriate response. Perhaps that’s why 28 percent of senior executives agreed that communication predicts your leadership potential.

Appearance. Looking polished and well put together was found to be an important element of presence. While only 5 percent of senior leaders considered it to be a key factor, every leader surveyed recognized appearance for its potential to derail high potential talent.

Gravitas. Leaders with executive presence must project confidence. In high-pressure situations, members look to their leader for confident, decisive action. Keeping ones poise under stress is vital for those in senior leadership, which is why two-thirds of the leaders surveyed agreed that gravitas was the core characteristic of executive presence.

The study’s findings also have some interesting implications for developing women and multicultural professionals into senior leaders. While the traditional explanations like work/life balance or a lack of available high-level sponsors were seen as reasons for the talent gap among these potential leaders, the survey also found that the impact of executive presence may play a role as well. Women and multicultural professionals felt they were held to a stricter standard and tended to feel a higher intrinsic tension between remaining true to oneself and assimilating with the dominant organizational culture, according to the study. Over 80 percent of women and people of color said they were unclear as to how to act on feedback about their own executive presence. In addition, 56 percent of people of color felt they were held to a stricter code of executive presence than the average organizational member.

In addition to analyzing the talent development factors and deconstructing the fuzzy concept of executive presence, Hewlett and her team have provided a method for analyzing executives for leadership development. By better understanding executive presence as a leadership competency, HR professionals and senior leaders can work more effectively develop future leaders, remove unnecessary barriers on women and multicultural professionals and make sure they are tapping into the potential of their most promising talent. On an individual level, potential leaders should examine this study’s implications for their own development.

Ask yourself: how well are you demonstrating poise under pressure? Is your appearance polished and put together? Can you effectively read an audience and communicate your ideas?


  1. Jordan Bracht says

    I’m a big advocate of clear, appropriate, and strategic communication. This study’s findings reinforce this notion. This skill, which I think is often underplayed, is a crucial prerequisite to one being a strong leader.

    • Kim Castro says

      Yet another piece in the plethora pie on leadership…. or was that management?… or was that supervision?, oh yes, Executive Presence.

      Sounds like all three, Communication, Appearance and Gravitas (substance or depth of personality) convey the personal vibe a person has. Got your apparel and kicks squared away and your mane looking good? Can you self illluminate to make people instantly become quiet when you enter a room? Can you put a verb and a noun in the same sentence and not sound like a grocery clerk?

      Ok, good stuff for sure. But perhaps one notion needs to be always kicked to the front of the line because it is essentially ignored. Do you exhibit or demonstrate a servant’s heart? Being a poster boy for “Mad Men” might pull off the ‘first impressions’ event but to draw people in to WANT to work for you, … yeah, now that’s the key. Mr. Burkus, you’ve constructed a great door. Good qualities all. But the key! I define a servant’s heart as being human and humane.


      • says

        Kim, great points. It’s important note the limitations of this study. Perception is not reality. While the folks at Mad Men look competent, I’ll take a leader with a desire to serve over a good suit any day. Thanks for the addition.

        • Kim Castro says

          Excellent, David. Check and checkmate. Thanks for climbing into my brain. I concur.
          Looking forward to your future installments.
          For info, I am a student in the study of leadership. Have been for 40 years.

          • says

            Awesome. I hope you find these articles helpful, and please accept my invitation to contribute as well. We’re always looking for good contributors. Thanks!

  2. says


    This is a good post.

    I wrote a blog a week ago where I make a similar point by saying what a start-up CEO can learn a lesson by comparing the style of two Presidential candidates in 1960: John F. Kennedy and Huber Humphrey.

    Humphrey was an everyman who knew all the issues in depth and Kennedy stayed high level. Kennedy won since people elect local politicians they identify with but elect Presidents who are visionary. A CEO has to act like a CEO and not fall into the trap of going out of that role.

  3. says

    Great article on Executive Presence! The comments were good too, although a little hostile at first.
    The question in the realm of executive Presence is, “What is your Personal Brand” and “What is the difference You have made even when you have left the setting?”
    Making a difference is critical and the impact of your difference once you have moved on is indicative of Executive Presence.
    This whole Executive presence plays into my Concentric Leadership System as a manageable Impact area.

    Good article and looking forward to future posts.

    Authentic Leadership Institute