Management by Coaching
The surprising “got to have” qualities that make people want to follow
Executive presence has long been acknowledged as a critical factor in a leader’s success, but it remains the mysterious “secret sauce” of leadership. When asked to define leader presence, people typically say, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” When pressed for a description, the common words you typically hear are “gravitas,” “savvy,” “charisma,” and “polish.” That is a limited and dangerous perspective. Although these qualities matter, they represent only one dimension of leader presence.
People value leaders who don’t think they know it all—leaders who openly recognize their strengths and weaknesses, believe all people have value, and are open to others’ ideas.
Jocelyn quickly caught the eye of senior management. Extremely articulate, she was a prepared and polished presenter and always was impeccably dressed. Her quiet confidence and strong social skills enabled her to “work any room” with style and grace. Labeled as a high-potential employee, she was promoted to regional marketing manager for a large national brokerage. Six months into the job, her team was in total disarray. New business quotes were 30 days behind the internal service standard. Submission-to-bind ratios were down 28%. The region was behind in its growth goals with its four leading carriers. The number of producer complaints about the marketing department was increasing every week.
Leader presence and why it matters
Leader presence is defined as the qualities that engage, align, inspire, and move people to act. Although Jocelyn had the intelligence, composure, and appearance of a leader, she lacked many of the inner qualities that directly tie to a leader’s ability to drive performance.
Up until now there has not been a tool for defining and measuring characteristics that comprise leader presence. New research conducted by Suzanne Bates is a game changer in identifying and developing leaders. She takes the nebulous concept of leader presence, defines it, and applies science to it. Her work builds on decades of research in leadership, management, psychology, social action theory, communication theory, philosophy, and ethics and extensive interviews with leaders and people who support them. The research delves deeper into character qualities that are not part of most leadership models. The model and assessment tool were validated and successfully piloted in 20 global organizations before its release. The Bates model delivers the hard data that organizations need in order to assess individuals’ leader presence and guide existing leaders on a path of productive development.
Fifteen characteristics identify leader presence, and they fall within three dimensions: character, substance, and style:
Character—These are the qualities, fundamental to a leader’s identity, that give us a reason to trust and that earn our goodwill. Ample research shows that our impressions of others are based more on character than personality. Leaders perceived as high in character find that people in their organization are willing to go above and beyond to achieve organizational goals. When things aren’t going well, this connection can become even more critical. People are willing to dig a little deeper and give their leader the benefit of the doubt.
Qualities in the character dimension include authenticity, integrity, concern for others by promoting individuals’ development and a sustainable healthy culture, and a calm disposition characterized by reasonableness and the avoidance of emotional extremes or impulsiveness.
Contrary to common perceptions about leaders, humility is key. People value leaders who don’t think they know it all—leaders who openly recognize their strengths and weaknesses, believe all people have value, and are open to others’ ideas.
Jocelyn had a calm disposition. She was steady, consistent, and always reasonable. But she had trouble gaining the trust of her people. She was so good at restraining her feelings and emotions that people never really knew how she felt about them or what was going on in the business. Her lack of transparency made others wary. Her unwillingness to reveal much about herself made it difficult for her to build solid relationships with her team.
Substance—This dimension is ultimately about a leader’s credibility. These are the cultivated qualities of developed leaders that inspire commitment, inform action, and inspire people to go above and beyond.
Vision is one of the important but often overlooked qualities. People see leader presence not just as skillfully managing the current reality but also as having the ability to paint a vivid picture of what could be; recognizing emerging trends and engaging all in the strategy.
Other qualities in this dimensioninclude (1) practical wisdom: the insightand judgment to get to the heart of issues and produce prudent decisions, (2) confidence: self-assured in decision making and ready to accept the risk and responsibility for taking timely action, (3) composure: steady in a crisis, able to calm and focus others, and to bring objectivity and perspective to critical decisions, and (4) resonance: being attentive, attuned, and responsive to others’ feelings, motivations, and thoughts, thus strengthening connection and alignment.
In her people’s eyes, Jocelyn had experience, composure, and confidence. What she lacked was vision and sensitivity to the needs of her people. She was so focused on reacting to the crisis of the day that she could never find time to focus on what could be done to create a better day-to-day reality for her team. With no hope of a relief on the horizon, her people lost enthusiasm for the work. The rumor was that her top two people were interviewing with the competition.
Style—People commonly think of style as dress and grooming. In the context of leader presence, however, style has a much broader meaning. Style is how a leader rallies people around the cause, engages them in getting it done, and sustains progress over time.
The style dimension encompasses five qualities: (1) appearance: looking and acting the part, projecting energy, and handling social situations with tact, (2) intentionality: clarifying focus, keeping actions aligned and on track without stifling dissent or neglecting needs to adjust course when necessary, (3) inclusiveness: actively involving others, welcoming diverse points of view, encouraging ownership of the mission, and empowering initiative, (4) interactivity: promoting an interpersonal style of dialogue and timely exchange of information and questions to coordinate action, and (5) assertiveness: speaking up, valuing constructive conflict, and raising issues directly without shutting others down.
Jocelyn projected the right executive image, but she lacked the other qualities of the style dimension. She spent too much of her time managing relationships with her superiors and not enough time with her team. Staff meetings were frequently canceled because of the constant crises. When there was a meeting, the agenda was packed tight with content, leaving little time for discussion and questions.
Focused on expediency in the short term, Jocelyn avoided any potential conflict. She relied on two go-to people on her team who she knew would get things done without question. Others felt out of the loop. They viewed Jocelyn as playing favorites and believed that she neither valued nor welcomed their contributions.
Strive for competence
Few leaders have all 15 characteristics, let alone master them. Some come to us naturally or are learned; others we struggle with and a few aren’t even on the radar. The key is recognizing the characteristics of leader presence, being conscious of which are strengths and weaknesses for you, knowing how you are perceived, and understanding where your gaps are. We don’t need to excel in all areas, but it is important to develop a minimum level of competence in each area.
It’s well established in management literature that over 40% of executive hires fail within the first 18 months and that their failure is often the result of interpersonal issues and the insensitivities that strain relationships and alienate support. Much is at risk when a leader takes on a new assignment. Impressions are formed early on and are difficult to change. Leaders have much less time to assimilate the demands of a new role.
Whether you are a new leader or are responsible for choosing others for leadership roles, be mindful of the characteristics of leader presence. Ultimately they are directly tied to a leader’s ability to drive performance.
Kimberly Paterson, CEC and Certified Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.