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Executive Presence

Robert Greiner
Robert Greiner
4 min read

I had an opportunity to read a few books over the holiday break, and the best one by far, was Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. In short Executive Presence shows how having all the right qualifications and results in your job does not guaranty advancement in your organization. In fact, you may be demonstrating one or more behaviors that are fully undermining your ability to promote, even if they are not directly related to the results you achieve.

My Favorite Point

It turns out, leadership isn't as much about what you do, but rather how you look while you are doing it. This means that most of the characteristics that your co-workers assign to you are subjective by nature and are influenced in ways that are unexpected. How many stories have we heard of bosses giving vague feedback to their directs around how they need to "be more assertive" only to have them over correct and now need to "be more vulnerable".


According to Hewlett, executive presence is made up of three key pillars: how you act (Gravitas), how you speak (Communication), and how you look (Appearance). Showing aptitude in these areas will send a signal to others that you have what it takes to take on a high level of responsibility and be successful.

Gravitas - How You Act

Gravitas is the most important pillar of Executive Presence. However, if you were to ask several working professionals today, most would have a hard time quantifying what exactly it means to have Gravitas. Luckily, Hewlett has our back here.

  • Confidence - leaders demonstrate confidence through "grace under fire". With the economic events that have transpired over the last 5-7 years, employees, shareholders, and consumers want to see their leaders behave in a calm-and-collected way, especially in the face of adversity.
  • Decisiveness - the ability to make the tough decision and fight back when others challenge you is key in a leader's ability to demonstrate decisiveness. A good example of this, whether you agree with her or not, is Marissa Mayer's decision to revoke remote working privileges at Yahoo.
  • Integrity - As Knowledge Worker jobs continue to replace those of the Factory Worker and information becomes more broadly distributed, integrity plays a key role in a leader's ability to be effective. The public is placing increased demands on companies and holding them accountable to their actions more than ever before. A leader who demonstrates integrity will more easily earn - and keep - the trust of those around her.
  • Emotional Intelligence - The ability to control one's emotions and act with empathy around others is a key skill in being an effective leader.

Communication - How You Speak

The next crucial ability for leaders to demonstrate solid Executive Presence is centered around Communication. If you want your ideas to be heard by others, you need to be able to communicate it in a way that they understand and resonates with those you need to persuade.

  • Superior Speaking Skills - Your ability to speak well is the single most important skill that dictates how people perceive your intelligence and ability to lead others. In the past, poor orators have completely destroyed the goodwill they built up with those that follow them. Don't be one of those leaders.
  • Ability to Command a Room - People don't grant you their attention for long, you ability to keep others engaged and focused on what you are talking about will increase the likelihood that you are heard.
  • Assertiveness - Similar to Decisiveness above, being assertive in addressing concerns sends a signal that you know what you are talking about and are confident in a decision/action. Even if you don't know the answer to something, own it immediately and move on.
  • Ability to Read a Room - Understanding how the people in the room are responding to your ideas is vital to succeed as a communicator. Sometimes, you need to adjust your message (or stop talking altogether) depending on how much support you are getting in a conversation.
  • Sense of Humor * Ability to Banter - Everyone makes mistakes, your ability to shrug them off - or even joke about them - will improve the perception others have of your communication abilities.

Appearance - How You Look

While appearance was rated as the least significant aspect of Executive Presence, the data show how poor appearance characteristics can rule you out of leadership opportunities before you've even had a chance to show others how awesome you are. While a positive appearance must be maintained throughout your leadership career, understand that perceptions of poor appearance can act as a roadblock to getting ahead.

  • Being Polished and Groomed - this signals to others that you care about your success. Most people view interactions with a poorly groomed colleague as disrespectful.
  • Fit/Slim - The perception of "vitality" elicits trust from those around you, they will believe that you have the wherewithal to handle issues that come your way.
  • Appropriate wardrobe choices - Whether you work on Wall Street or Silicon Valley, there is an accepted look for your work attire. Understanding what is acceptable and dressing to fit will ensure your appearance isn't a limiting factor in your future success.


In order for your voice to be heard, you must first be in a position where people will listen to you. If you are at a point in your career where you are delivering solid results, but just can't seem to get to the next level, Executive Presence could be the missing link. Regardless of where you are in your career or even to what level of leadership you aspire to, Executive Presence can serve as a helpful guide to ensure you can bridge the gap between merit and success.

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Robert Greiner Twitter

Professional optimist. I write a weekly newsletter for humans at the intersection of business, technology, leadership, and career growth.

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