Imagine that you’re walking into an important meeting. The stakes are high. The outcome matters.

Whether it’s a meeting with the company’s shareholders or a one-on-one conversation with one of your direct reports, executive presence is integral to effective leadership. Executive presence is multi-faceted, encompassing how you are seen, perceived and experienced by others. It begins with how you perceive yourself. No matter how much you read about or practice it, your executive presence hinges on one often-ignored factor: alignment.

perception is critical for effective leadership

If the wheels on your vehicle are out of alignment, the ride is anything but smooth. You notice it. Your passengers feel it. Your tires bear more wear and tear because of it. And so it goes for executive presence. People may not be able to articulate it, but can sense and, at times, read when your thoughts, moods and micro expressions are out of sync with your external projections. It feels inauthentic — because it is. As a result, your ability to lead with impact and influence suffers. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, there are several ways to bring alignment to your executive presence.


Incongruence between your words and thoughts or underlying mood states isn’t the same as lying. Rather, it reflects dissonance. Consider these scenarios:

  • On your way to the conference room to deliver a key client presentation, you pass the CEO in the hallway. You tell her you’re confident it will go well. Under your breath, you tell yourself it won’t.
  • Joe, one of your direct reports, expresses concern over an upcoming merger. You reassure him, but inside, you wonder about job security — yours and his.
  • Your team is over budget on a project due at the end of the month. When the CFO asks you how it’s going, you tell him “Fine … just fine,” as you try to figure out ways to compensate for the higher-than-expected costs.

Gaining alignment requires acknowledging realities (“Yeah, Joe, I’m a little concerned too”), reframing (“… but I haven’t heard anything concrete, so there’s no truth to any rumors yet”) and repositioning your leadership (“I’ll let you know as soon as I get official word, but until then, let’s see if we can’t exceed our March sales goals”).

Executive presence: developing awareness

Thirty years ago, my mentor, Fernando Flores, one of the pioneers of ontological coaching, took me on a “field trip.” The destination wasn’t far — it was literally outside my office — but it transformed my ability to read people. Standing on a busy corner of Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, clipboard in hand, he pointed to a well-dressed man walking in our direction.

Verbal cues speak volumes for effective leadership

“Tell me about that person,” he said. I was at a loss. I didn’t know that person; I had never seen him before. “Make up a story. Include every detail you can imagine about this man. Is he married or single? What kind of work does he do? Is he good at his job? Do his co-workers like him?” At first, I was wrong most of the time. Fernando would explain why, based on nuances. “Notice how that woman carries herself,” he would point out. “Her gait exudes confidence.” As he taught me to become a keen observer of these non-verbal cues, he warned me of the dangers of making assumptions. While the presence of a wedding ring would signal “married,” the absence of one didn’t mean a person was single. We did this for hours, and actually tested our theories on several strangers who were kind enough to tell us if we were right or wrong in our invented stories about them.

Very quickly, I learned that whether male or female, a person’s presence — how they walked, whether or not they maintained eye contact and even how they dressed — absolutely correlated with their profession. It was fascinating.

how leaders perceive themselves is vital for effective leadership

The exercise — one I continue to use on occasion with my executive coaching clients today — was pivotal in developing my capacity to read people. It also helped develop my own executive presence through an acute awareness of somatics.

Executive presence isn’t just about how you’re perceived by others. It starts with YOU.


There is no separation between mind and body. Neuroscience confirms it. If you’re looking to enhance your executive presence, consider these strategies:

1. “Fake it till you make it”

If you feel that your success is more a matter of luck than a result of your true ability (known as the Impostor Syndrome), it can take a major toll on the confidence you’re trying to project. A powerful way to overcome your fears and perceived inadequacies — and thereby strengthen your executive presence — is through a somatic makeover.

leaders comport themselves with authentic presence

While the ultimate goal is to achieve authenticity, practicing good posture, walking with confidence and maintaining comfortable eye contact will make your executive presence feel — and then become — more natural. As time goes on, you’ll find that you no longer need to cue yourself. The demeanor will become automatic.Leaders who walk into a room with authentic presence do so on a subconscious level. It’s not affect, nor is it forced. It’s just who they are.

2. Be present

Alignment and presence — as in, being present in your surroundings — go hand in hand. When you’re focused on what’s going on at the moment, it’s almost impossible for competing conversations (particularly those that undermine your confidence) to take place in your head. Being present gives rise to a quiet internal state, allowing you to focus on the “now” rather than ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Saying good morning to someone who steps into the elevator with you isn’t just about being friendly; it’s about drawing your attention to the present moment and interacting with the world around you — without feeling self-conscious.

3. Change your physiology

In her best-selling book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy describes the science behind “power poses” and why they really can help you feel more confident. Likewise, deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective ways to alter your physiology, particularly when you’re in an emotionally heightened state.

4. Observe

Becoming aware of somatic behavior — yours and those around you — will help you identify situations where words and thoughts or mood states are incongruent. In addition to posture, eye contact and gait, be cognizant of microexpressions. Trying to hide your feelings from yourself — or others? They’ll likely show up in your microexpressions, fleeting facial expressions that convey emotion and can hijack your executive presence. Dr. Paul Ekman, who has studied microexpressions for over 50 years, says that there are seven basic emotions with universal signals:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Happiness

Because microexpressions can covertly and quickly relay emotions, it’s important that they’re in alignment with the thoughts, moods and behaviors that support your executive presence.

Positive mindset enhances effective leaders

5. Work from the inside out

Executive presence isn’t just about how you’re perceived by others. It starts with YOU. What are the thoughts that drive your mood states? Are they accurate? Do they serve you well? Telling yourself, “I’m going to blow it,” “this challenge is beyond my ability to handle,” or “they’re not going to take this well” creates a level of self-consciousness that sabotages your capacity for performance. Shifting yourself to a positive mindset changes the tone of the conversations that take place inside your head. Through repeated and consistent practice, you can rewire your brain, resulting in a natural alignment of your thoughts, moods and behaviors that profoundly strengthens your executive presence.

Honing your inner game will drive your performance to new levels. Step one involves developing an awareness around your thoughts, moods and perspectives. Our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshops will help you explore the ways you might be standing in your own way — and train you to break nonproductive patterns. The transformation is real, and the results can be game-changing.