To Increase Your Executive Presence, Be Authentic

I’ve worked with leaders who come across as overly polished or who somehow don’t always connect well with others. They try to appear a certain way, projecting a certain kind of image. Or they keep their distance from important colleagues. They may get caught up in their own words or in their heads. They may just be very private. The common thread is that they don’t seem authentic, and authenticity is critical to leadership, trust and executive presence.

Here are a few suggestions for developing greater authenticity.

Get to know yourself

First, work on self-awareness. Authenticity demands knowing what’s truly important to you, what you care about and why you care about it. You need to be in touch with your emotional life and to understand your motivations and fears. You need to know what makes you angry and what you think and believe most profoundly.

The better you yourself know these things, the easier it will be to share who you are with others. Another way to think about this is: the more you connect with yourself, the easier it is for others to connect with you.

Also, a depth of self-knowledge can serve as a powerful internal compass to help you make tough decisions and weather challenging periods. Self-awareness is a foundation not just of executive presence, but of strong leadership—and even wisdom.

Many leaders are so busy pursuing their goals that they haven’t done enough to fully understand their own passions and values. There are several ways you can do this more intentionally. Any practice where you observe and reflect on who you are and what you care about can help move the needle:

  • In their outstanding book, The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Gary Posner provide several exercises to help leaders become more self-aware (see chapter two, “Clarify Values”). One exercise is to write your “credo,” a summary of your leadership philosophy. The idea is to write guidelines, as if someone were going to fill in for you for six months. What principles would you want them to operate with? This exercise forces you to reflect on the principles that are at the center of leadership for you.
  • Meditation, mindfulness and other forms of self-observation are useful tools.
  • Formal assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and StrengthsFinder 2.0 can help you see yourself more clearly.
  • A 360-degree feedback process can provide insight into how others see you, giving you more insight into yourself. You can even begin simply by asking your colleagues, friends or family members, “What do you think my strengths are? How could I improve? What would you say are my core values?” Or, engage a coach to conduct a 360-degree feedback process for you.You’ll learn a lot.

The more you know yourself, the better.

Be open…

Authenticity also requires some openness about who you are and what you think and feel. People trust transparent leaders because they feel that what they see is what they get.

Some people are under the misguided impression that to be a great leader, you have to appear to be flawless. This is simply not true. People are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for a real human being who they can connect with, trust and follow. Flaws can actually be endearing.

Research shows that people want to know their leaders. They don’t just want to know their leader’s vision for the organization; they want a personal connection. One way to achieve that is by sharing more about yourself: your family, history, joys, passions and fears. Sharing some of these things with the people you lead can help them feel closer to you.

You can also show authenticity by asking about others’ personal lives and struggles, and showing genuine concern and caring.

…But not too open

Of course, you can’t be totally open and transparent about everything all the time, nor is it desirable to do so. There may be personal matters or confidential strategic, legal or HR information that you don’t want known. And authenticity doesn’t mean saying everything that comes into your mind. Authentic leaders monitor their behavior and words because they know these things impact their colleagues.

I recently had a conversation with a leader that illustrates this point. She had been very open with her team regarding the challenges her company was facing, and she was proud of how transparent she had been. But she also received feedback that her team was feeling demoralized. I reminded her that her role was not just to be open, but also to give hope, encouragement and inspiration to her team. In her case I think perhaps her definition of transparency went too far in the direction of “just sharing everything.” She needed to lead more.

Engendering optimism is important. So, part of authentic leadership involves reaching into yourself, finding your own positivity and including that in a more balanced message: “We’re facing a real challenge. I recognize that. But I also know what you all are capable of…you are the most talented team I’ve worked with. I know we’ll solve this!”

Think about how authentic you are as a leader. Do you know what’s important to you and why? Can you articulate that? Do you share your thoughts and feelings with those around you? Do the people you work with know some personal things about you and your life? Do you find genuine ways to show that you care? Do you build optimism and inspiration into your transparency about bad news, when possible?

For more on balancing authenticity in the leadership role, see the Harvard Business Review article, “The Authenticity Paradox.” For a deeper dive see Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership.

To learn about other aspects of executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, word choice, body language and voice.

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