What Is Leadership Presence

There is no doubt that leadership presence is a key component to any executive’s success. We certainly recognise it in others, yet it can feel elusive and hard to define. What are these necessary qualities, and how can we cultivate them within ourselves?

In her book Executive Presence, the Missing Link between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert in gender and workplace issues and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, writes that her research identified three main qualities that would give a person “leadership presence.”

These are:

  • Gravitas, a quality described as having self-assurance, decisiveness, and emotional intelligence;
  • Communication; and
  • Appearance.

“Being able to convey that you’re in charge – just by walking into a room – requires a unique blend of self-possession, charm and authenticity,” Hewlett writes.

The Center for Talent Innovation conducted several studies to identify the qualities that make up leadership presence and these three elements were identified by all those who took part. Leaders may have a variety of great qualities, but these form the common thread.


Gravitas, Hewlett explains, is about how you act. She writes that about two-thirds of the senior executives surveyed rated gravitas as the most important ingredient in leadership presence. This quality is what enables superior leaders to keep their composure during hard times, to make tough decisions when others falter and to speak “truth to power.”
Hewitt also writes about how emotional intelligence is an essential element of gravitas. Executives with gravitas value their reputations, and align their actions and appearance with their “personal brand”.


The second quality of leadership presence as identified by Hewlett encompasses both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. These, she explains, include superior speaking skills and the ability to engage an audience and develop good listening skills.
She also writes that the importance of body language should not be underestimated when developing leadership presence and this includes a degree of self-awareness in order to avoid actions like checking phones or slouching.


The third element of leadership presence, according to Hewlett is appearance. She adds that the respondents in their study indicated that this is the first thing they look at. Taking the time to look polished and professional signals to others that you care not only about yourself but about them as well, she added.
This is a point supported by author and social psychologist Amy Cuddy. “How you carry yourself – your facial expressions, your postures, your breathing – all clearly affect the way you think, feel, and behave,” writes Cuddy.


In her book Presence: Bringing  Your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges,  Amy Cuddy writes that to achieve “presence” you need to be authentic and say and do what you believe. She adds that people naturally respond to a person who is authentic.
She advises that to gain presence it is important to acknowledge what your core values are and to act accordingly. Preparation, Cuddy adds, is the key as this would allow you to “invoke presence” and be able to state your point of view based on your values and strengths. She argues that the first step to developing leadership presence would be to teach people to trust you and, like Hewlett, adds that listening is a powerful skill to develop.

Learned behaviour

Cuddy agrees with Hewlett that leadership presence can be learned. She suggests developing a range of nudges, more specifically by using powerful postures and body language, to prime yourself. Where the body leads the mind follows.
Watch Cuddy’s TED talk to understand more on power posing: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

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