Understanding how you are perceived – and how you can change that – is key to building trust as a leader.
If you’ve ever felt like you aren’t being taken seriously, hoped for a more important title to seem “more like a leader”, or wondered why other people were always being considered for bigger projects, you might need to work on your leadership presence.
In this post, we’ll provide you with tips on how to level up your own leadership presence so you can continue to move your career forward. But first, let’s talk a little about what leadership presence is, and why it’s so important.
Special thanks to Hannah Steinman, COO of Peak Support whose 2019 SD Expo talk inspired this blog post.
What is Leadership Presence?
Projecting yourself as a leader requires knowing what leadership presence looks like. Is it being the loudest voice in the room? Using the biggest words? Not quite.
My favorite definition of this somewhat nebulous term comes from Carol Kinsey Goman in Forbes: “It’s how you show up, how you make others feel, and how effectively you communicate both verbally and non-verbally.” Even in the most difficult conversations, leaders can provide a steady guiding hand that makes everyone in the room feel grounded.
To show leadership presence takes:
- Confidence: Own what you want to say, and what you think. Overconfidence can come across as being cocky or stubborn. Instead, aim for “strong opinions, loosely held.” Take a stance, but be willing to change your opinion should someone else have more information or experience than you do.
- Authority: Projecting authority reassures those around you that you have the necessary power to make decisions and provide direction. Authority often comes from expertise, so even if you don’t have a managerial title, you can still show your authority and expertise in situations.
- Clarity: While you might have confidence in your expertise, you still need to be able to communicate that authority clearly. Leaders are excellent communicators that can get their point across, regardless of the audience.
- Awareness: Research has consistently shown that leaders who listen at least as much as they talk are more effective and rated more highly by those around them. A big part of leadership presence is being aware of the people around you: what they think, how they feel and how they perceive you. By seeking “first to understand, then to be understood” leaders can build a stronger presence.
Why spend time working on your Leadership Presence?
Spending your valuable time working on building a leadership presence might seem like a waste. Or, you might feel a little silly analyzing the perception people have of you – surely this presence will be naturally developed over time as you become a leader.
That might be true, but being purposeful in developing your speaking style will ensure that you’re being perceived how you want to be. In many cases, leadership presence is the reason why one person gets a promotion and another person is passed over.
Even just a few minutes spent developing an awareness of your own leadership presence can change your career.
Gerry Valentine says it best. Leadership (or executive) presence is responsible for “inspiring confidence in your subordinates that you’re the leader they want to follow, inspiring confidence among peers that you’re capable and reliable and, most importantly, inspiring confidence among senior leaders that you have the potential for great achievements.”
Do you want to get to work on bigger projects? Do you want your new team to trust you and feel confident about the direction of the team? Do you want a promotion? Okay…then it’s time to make sure your leadership presence is shining at full blast.
4 Tips to Improve Your Leadership Presence
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it
Understand that your delivery is as important as the content. The most brilliant words could be mumbled and no one would listen. But speak with leadership presence and people will trust what you’re saying. Once you’ve decided what you want to say, commit to it and deliver it with confidence.
Humans rely on body language for signals. If you’re taking up space and relaxed, humans will naturally assume you’re confident. If you’re shrinking away and fidgeting, humans will see you as nervous and unsure. My personal habits are to pull my hands in against my chest and to play with my hair while I’m thinking. What are yours?
Find your filler words or qualifiers
Everyone has words they interject into sentences when they are searching for what they want to say. “Like”, “um” and “actually” are all examples of qualifiers that don’t add any substance to what you’re saying. Using them too often can discredit your authority. If you don’t already know what words you’re using to fill in silence, ask the people around you. Then, try to reduce your reliance on them.
Use silence, take breaths
Talking without taking a breath is often perceived as a sign of nervousness. When you’re demonstrating leadership presence, it’s important to pause, breath regularly, and leave space. Short pauses can often be used to emphasize a point or to let the audience absorb something. Don’t be afraid to take a breath – if someone interrupts, you can always ask them if it’s okay for you to finish.
Incorporating Leadership Practice into Your Day
When you start thinking about the ways you could improve your own presence, it can be difficult to know how to begin. Here are four strategies to employ as you continue making changes to become a better communicator:
Notice, be aware: The first step to making any changes is to notice your current habits. If you have the opportunity to record yourself giving a presentation, try to watch it back and note any bad habits you have. Be gentle with yourself – this is a process, and you’re the toughest critic of yourself. If you’re in a mentorship program, consider asking your mentor for their perspective as well.
Don’t overcorrect: Being overly aware of your habits can make you do weird things. For example, if you notice that you talk with your hands too much, you might stand stiff as a soldier, hands at your side for the next presentation. That’s also bad. Try to naturally nudge yourself towards more confident habits, rather than taking a 180.
Fake it until you become it: When I started working at Starbucks I was painfully shy. But I needed to change that to be the outgoing confident person that could manage a large queue, organize a team of teenagers and ensure the store ran smoothly. For me, every time I put on the Starbucks green apron, I pictured myself putting on a more confident, outgoing persona. It felt like I was faking it behind the apron, but it worked. And after a few months, I wasn’t faking it anymore. If you don’t feel like a leader, find a way to fake it.
Claim your place: If you’re invited into a room or meeting with a lot of other leaders, it can be tempting to fade into the background or wait until you’re invited to speak. This can put a lot of pressure on your “big moment” when you do need to present. Instead, claim your place early. Make small talk with your neighbors as you wait for the meeting to start. Speak up early. That way, you’ll set the precedent that you have something to say and people should make space for your voice.
Leadership Presence is an Ongoing Skill
Everyone can improve their own leadership presence to become more aware, and more confident.
Understanding how you are perceived – and how you can change that – is key to building trust as a leader. With the eight strategies listed above, you’ll be well on your way to developing a strong leadership presence.