Building Leadership Confidence and Executive Presence

Identity - PurposeIf you want to succeed in the senior leadership ranks, you need “executive presence.” Here are two focuses – often overlooked – that are key to strengthening the confidence you need to demonstrate executive presence.

First, though …

What is executive presence, anyway?

You know it when you see it. And when you don’t …

  • A normally articulate leader nervously rambles when given the chance to present to the senior leadership team. He stumbles and is overly deferential while fielding their critiques during the Q&A.
  • An otherwise capable manager comes across as unorganized, unprepared or late for a key meeting.
  • A leader’s appearance or demeanor is distracting or extreme enough (e.g., too quiet or too brash) that this undermines her other leadership qualities and talents.

Several of the skills and behaviors commonly cited in research that are essential in demonstrating executive presence include: effective public speaking, decisiveness, poise under pressure, ability to listen and read an audience or situation, assertiveness, ability to hold your own with other talented and strong-willed leaders and appearance. (See Do you have executive presence? by Jenna Goudreau (Forbes) and Deconstructing Executive Presence, by John Beeson (HBR).)

While these skills are all important, I agree with Beeson and Goudreau that the essence of executive presence is the ability to project a mature self-confidence.

How do you develop this leadership confidence?

Building skills and learning new behaviors are important but not sufficient for gaining leadership confidence. Some would-be leaders have a difficult time viewing themselves as leaders. Building leadership confidence, for many, involves both a fundamental identity shift and a clear and meaningful purpose.

1. Shift your identity.

Learning to view yourself as a leader can be a fragile process. And it is tightly connected to whether others view you as a leader. In their HBR article Women Rising: the Unseen Barriers, Hermina Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb astutely observe that most organizations looking to develop leaders don’t get this. Their research has shown that people need a safe and affirming place to tackle the challenges and take the courageous steps necessary to cement their beliefs and others’ beliefs that they are leaders.

Viewing yourself as a leader helps give motivation to take the risks and expand the efforts necessary to build the skills required of a leader. And as you and others observe your success, you receive affirmation, and this encourages confidence. But when they see you fail, instead of seeing failure as a chance to learn, some may lose confidence in you and not affirm your further steps to lead. This can discourage your own confidence that you are a leader. That’s where the following focus comes into play …

2. Clarify a meaningful purpose.

Authors Ibarra, Ely and Kolb encourage us not to focus too much on how others view us. Instead, they suggest that leaders anchor in a meaningful purpose – true to your values and bigger than you – and go for it. Tuning into what’s really important – tying your calling and values into what’s important to the organization – provides a focus, energy and conviction that builds and demonstrates confidence to move forward even in the midst of obstacles and setbacks. Others typically see and affirm this.

Do you view yourself as a leader?

And are you clear on what important contribution you are determined and energized to make as a leader in order to help your organization achieve goals that are meaningful to both of you? Addressing these questions are critical to building the leadership confidence and executive presence you will need to succeed.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders and their teams build confidence and clear and meaningful purpose. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.