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Get Over It! Six Reasons Leadership/Executive Presence Still Matters

© Steve Whiteford 2015


Search “Executive Presence” on the internet and you will find tons of articles, and resources for training on the topic. Yet, I consistently see opinion articles that dismiss the validity of the discipline.When I read the trashing of what I have experienced to be core skills of communication, leadership and exemplary human expression, I pause to ponder what is behind it.

I attribute some of the resistance and venom to how this discipline is typically marketed. The ads tend to focus on overblown discussions and depictions of IMAGE that shout EGO through bodies stiffly held in “power” body-language, and smug facial expressions showing unquestionable superiority. They promise success through formulaic communication; trick verbal models and magical incantations to guarantee success. Do they mean to inspire through intimidation? …Sign up here to insure your 15 minutes of fame as you soar to the top.


The marketing promises and exaggerated instructions affront authenticity. The pumped-up projected results are both attractive and at the same repulsive, representing success along with what many normal people hate about corporate dominance and repression of the individual.

kidkarateI attribute another aspect of the criticism to – well, resistance; resistance to what feels like criticism, resistance to change, resistance to not being just fine the way I am. It’s hard to be called to an incremental examination of how we “be” in the world (which is what it ultimately adds up to.) Our vulnerable inner child absolutely wants to revolt!

It’s also common to reject the proposed skill sets as  fake. Nobody wants to come across as an inflated empty suit! We can appear awkward and phony when first attempting targeted changes, but remember the learning curve! Most of us would like to be more effective and less at the whim of limited skills we can easily develop, or psychological hitches we accepted as part of our identity growing up. We all have some limitations, and the opportunity to have fewer should be enough motivation to take a look. Self-awareness is the foundation of effective communication. We need to give ourselves some slack as we progress from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence (the painful part) on into conscious competence and finally the ease and pizzazz of  unconscious competence where we can immediately and authentically shift into the most effective communication gear.


I recently watched a documentary on Downton Abbey’s producer’s commitment to the historical accuracy on the show. It was interesting that a lot of the focus was on the society and the culture and how human behavior was constricted by norms that were meant to maintain “the societal machine,” moral structure, and the dignity of human beings. Of course there were problems in the society, especially in that the behaviors actually restricted human dignity on many strata by separating classes. The behaviors also became obsolete because they became a thing in themselves – more IMAGE than substantive action and practice developed from human principle. Fortunately that rigidity of society has largely broken down, and we’re all a little more relaxed these days….

History, however, offers a plethora of instructions which are truly the root of many of the proven disciplines we include in the curriculum of Leadership Presence. No matter your fears or opinions – particular behaviors evolved, unique to and across cultures that both produced and defined, health, intelligence, success, and leadership. We still look for and respond to those behavioral cues today. We’re neurologically wired to do so.

A few of the core wisdoms playing through from the origins of human culture include:

  1. Alignment and conscious use of body, speech and mind. Alignment suggests physical, psychological, ethical and spiritual integration, expression and demonstration. Conscious use means using those human media with the awareness and skill to produce a “moral” (substitute Emotionally Intelligent) result. This is essential to authenticity.
  2. Posture, “body language,” facial expression, and quality of movement count. “Deportment and demeanor” matter. “Old-timey” words? All those Egyptian, Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, Celts, Asians and Africans knew it. Numerous if not all Aboriginal Tribes knew it.  No doubt even the Neanderthals knew it. These simple expressions are vital to communication and survival throughout all species. How you hold your body affects how you feel, from emotions through physical health. The body/brain/heart/gut/mind is an integrated system. And bodies and our energy are the most immediate forms of information exchange in a highly interdependent society.
  3. Charisma is not a myth. Nor is it entirely dependent upon the body, or a birth trait. It occurs from an integration of skills and practice. Unexpectedly, it’s one of the things often attributed to Stephen Hawking – because of the attunement of his intelligence and his amazingly inclusive awareness of others, his energy is said to fill a room.
  4. The “Word” and how we use it – is powerful. Some verbal models, like software programs, do work. They work for our own brains by laying down reliable pathways that we can access on the spot, and they work for others by providing clarity and brevity. Intention, which is always subtly felt between people, is extremely important in verbal communication as well as quality of voice and tone.
  5. “Do unto others as you would be done unto.” Some form of this proverbial commandment exists in most cultures. It’s based in Stephen Hawking’s inclusive awareness, or in some circles known as It’s being aware of and respectfully adjusting our own behavior and communication to be meaningful for others. It’s acknowledgement that “we are all human.” What makes us human is our capacity to cooperate, and care, and do things for the good of others and for all, over personal gain.
  6. A methodology to evoke courage and clarity, on the spot. The methodology often involves a combination of numbers 1 – 5. Consider the war dance of the Maoris, the practices of Asian Martial Arts, the rituals of Olympians and Sportsmen, Orators, anyone in the face of challenge with a job to do….

Although coursework for Leadership and Executive Presence often includes many other factors (Emotional Intelligence, Influence, Decision, Conflict Management, Vision, Team, etc.) these six disciplines represent the working foundation. Of course people still  poo-poo the power of this topic because they feel they’ve heard too much about it (and no doubt resisted it). Yet I’m consistently  astounded to find how much of it is still new to many people (including some in very high positions), and to witness how much they benefit from learning the principles and practices. I’m always delighted with the opportunity to wrangle with  resisters a little, encouraging them into exploring, then demonstrating a skill. I thrill to see them change before my eyes! The other participants also often marvel at the difference something as simple as stance, tone, or listening awareness can add to the person’s credibility and presence. If a simple practice is embraced fully with self-awareness and consistently used, the action can truly change the participant’s life. It can certainly change a personal habit, a relationship, a team, a department and ultimately an organization. These are life skills.

NLP6Neuroscience has confirmed the interdependence of all of our brains. Through “mirror neurons” we are each strongly affected by the people and the environment in which we work. The understanding of how we behave and the effect of our behavior on others coupled with the  willingness to change habits and be purposeful in our expression in the moment, is a vital way to be present in our lives and workplaces.

Through these skills our very “Presence,” becomes a powerful and tangible energy.

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