As a manager, do you know how you are viewed as a leader? Do you know how you are viewed as you perform your daily responsibilities, or interview for a job, or are considered for a promotion? Are you viewed as someone who is:

  • Intelligent and in command?
  • Patient, detail-oriented, and an insightful judge of human nature and able to influence and motivate?
  • Viewed as having gravitas?
  • Able to command a room upon entering?   

There appears to be general agreement that how managers are viewed as they lead is an important component of leadership, yet it is too often overlooked. Perhaps that is because executive presence is an intellectually challenging and elusive topic. There has been a buzz recently about the topic, particularly in private sector leadership circles. Executive coaching has become a popular tool in the private sector as a way to secure this quality.

Consider this definition of presence from the free Merriam–Webster online dictionary (, which highlights its inherent power: "The bearing, carriage, or air of a person; especially stately or distinguished bearing; a noteworthy quality of poise and effectiveness."

Can executive presence be defined? What impact does it have on successful leaders? Is it merely a perception, or are there core characteristics that should be considered by professional local government managers?

One of the authors of this article, David Morrison, who has worked with professional local government managers for more than 40 years, has been intrigued by executive presence and its impact on successful outcomes in the public sector.

His broad-brush question for senior executives in the public and private sectors is: How is the relationship between local government management professionals, elected bodies, and other groups operating within a local government impacted by executive presence. In interviews with public and private sector executives, Morrison asked:

  • Does executive presence exist?
  • What are its characteristics?
  • Can you name individuals who have it and do not have it?

The results of the interviews were fascinating. Every leader interviewed believed executive presence was real, that is, that executive presence exists. They could point to people who had it, those who did not, and the differences between them.

Here are the key insights, culled from the interviews about the nature of executive presence:


1. You will know it when you see it.

2. It can be a success accelerator or success decelerator.

3. It involves value alignment.

4. Important decisions are based upon it, including hiring and promotional decisions.

5. Information is shared in confidence to individuals with it.

6. Individuals who are knowledgeable and competent are often deferential to those with it.

7. Executive presence is not leadership. It is tied to the role, the achievements, and the accomplishments of the person but is not tied to the actions themselves.

8. Those with it have a certain “wow factor” or magnetism.

9. A leader must be absolutely realistic about possessing the core characteristics of executive presence in order to be strategic about career planning and management challenges.


The interviewed senior executives identified certain core characteristics of executive presence. Characteristics were broken down into those applicable to the self and those that apply to interpersonal interactions (see Figure 1).


Four Core Characteristics

Upon reflection and based on years of active participation in local government management and advising and observing managers, we believe that four core characteristics define executive presence as it applies to managers.

1 Seriousness of purpose. Leaders with executive presence generate a perception that they should be followed. They possess a seriousness of purpose that is clearly communicated.

They do so through an unforced self-confidence, readily apparent self-discipline and thorough preparation, attention to detail, decisiveness at the appropriate time, and a clearly communicated vision of the path ahead. Consider President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. These leaders left no doubt that they wanted to lead.

Texas Governor Rick Perry is an example of someone who failed to communicate a seriousness of purpose when he fumbled the question during the November 2011 Republican debates concerning which departments in the federal government he would eliminate. His response of “Sorry, oops” was a fatal mistake. Compare Governor Perry’s performance with that of Mayor Giuliani following the 9/11 attacks as he forcefully communicated a seriousness of purpose.

President Lincoln was once asked if he had eight hours to cut down a large tree, how would he use that time? He responded by saying he would use six of the hours sharpening his ax. Lincoln proved that effective preparation is critical to success as a leader.

This has become even more critical due to the prominence of the Information Age. Effective and thorough preparation is the cornerstone to communicating a seriousness of purpose.

It is important for a leader to never imply power where that power does not exist. This can be a real challenge in professionally managed local government where power is shared and not concentrated in any one person or group. There can be moments during a career where due to the professional local government managers’ long tenure, past success or strength as a leader it is presumed by others that power exists where that power belongs to others. The lure of the temptation to accept this presumption is rejected by leaders seeking to communicate a seriousness of purpose.

2 Ability to forge relationships built on trust. One of the foundations of representative democracy is trust. Leaders with executive presence are expert in developing relationships built on trust and communicating and keeping a promise.

This promise is not an ironclad guarantee of success. It is an ironclad guarantee that the leader is wholly invested in the emotionally present, has the intention and power to work to keep the promise, will keep everyone’s best interests in mind, will protect the needs of all involved, and understands and will work to manage the risks. Consider leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, or Phil Jackson, the winner of 11 NBA championships.

Relationships built on trust require predictability of behavior, which is built over time. For leaders in new roles who are anxious to produce adaptive change, patience is required. Success in developing relationships built on trust results from a series of successes and accountability for any failures.

Leaders who project a trustworthy self also inspire trustworthiness in others. This trustworthiness on the part of leaders and followers is required for the resolution of difficult issues.

Leaders with executive presence set a trustworthy context, making it easier for those involved to understand the roles, the problem, and the path to a realistic solution. Clear and precise communication is imperative.

3 Strong personal connection. Leaders with executive presence draw people in and maintain that connection. It is an attraction based on how they are seen by others and a clear understanding by the leader of the importance of how they are seen.

Consider presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Keep in mind that many thought Richard Nixon lost the 1963 presidential debates because of his 5 o’clock shadow and perspiration on national television.

It is critical not to confuse this characteristic solely with handsomeness, beauty, or seduction. Building connections and holding people’s attention has a physical quality to it, such that presence is about projecting a physical appearance that is appropriate for the situation and context. It is projecting poise under pressure.

Leaders with executive presence dress appropriately, speak in an appropriate voice and tone, are careful about body language, and maintain a workplace environment that delivers the appropriate message. What message do you receive when you enter an office or meeting place that is disorganized and chaotic?

Simple things like a firm handshake, eye contact, and a well- kempt appearance are essential. Understanding that there is a difference between the public and private sector in this regard is also important. Blue jeans worn in offices in Silicon Valley may project a different message in a city hall in America’s heartland.

Styles are not always interchangeable. An October, 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, a non-profit research think tank in New York City in which 208 senior executives were surveyed revealed that 75 percent of those surveyed about executive presence said that unkempt attire is a detractor for both men and women, and 73 percent said that ill-fitting or provocative clothing is problematic.

4 Focused awareness. Leaders with executive presence are fully present, focused, and attentive to the needs of others. Managing group dynamics, monitoring emotions, managing conflict, giving and receiving feedback, providing support through structure, and recognizing formal and informal authority are all critically important. Consider former GE Chairman Jack Welch, South African President Nelson Mandela, and the early performance of Pope Francis.

Having a realistic view of oneself is a critical component. Constantly searching for objective feedback helps that realistic view.

Understanding the importance of monitoring process and not just the outcomes through disciplined reflection is a necessity, as is monitoring your leadership energy as well as the energy of a group. A leader should only give the group work at a pace and in a quantity the group can handle, keeping the stress level manageable.

A Leadership Necessity

Understanding the power and complexity of executive presence is a leadership necessity. It is vital for leaders to spend thinking time evaluating their personal assets to determine how they can be best used and pay particular attention to the core characteristics of executive presence.

We believe that all of us have been affected by the concept of executive presence, in most cases unknowingly, because it is not a topic we have spent much time thinking about. It may have determined the candidate we voted for, the mentor we chose, the hero who inspired us or the news anchor we watch. We also believe that spending some thinking time on the topic and evaluating how we are perceived by others and our personal connection to the core characteristics is a key to maximizing our ability as a leader to influence and motivate.


Interviews with 30+ private and public sector executives were conducted in 2011 by David Morrison as part of data collection concerning the topic of executive presence. Results indicate the percentage of interviewees who mentioned the characteristic.


Personal Characteristics:

 94% Confident

69% Competent thinker

63% Attractive appearance

44% Fully present

38% Master of self

25% Genuine


Interpersonal Interactions:

 100% Communicates a strong desire to lead

 94% Emotionally engaged

44% Trustworthy

44% Has a connective impact on others


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