Rethinking and Modernizing Executive Presence
Rethinking and Modernizing Executive Presence

executive presence in male tech leaderAs an executive coach, clients sometimes ask me for advice on how to develop their executive presence. And every now and then, someone will make it clear that they have a very narrow definition of executive presence — and it usually rubs me the wrong way. The unstated subtext is that “real executives” fit a certain template, and that template does not include certain types of leaders, despite being accomplished and effective.  Thankfully, after so many years of tech executives capturing headlines and broad attention, attitudes have certainly shifted — and the dress code has definitely evolved.

I explored this a while back in a blog article about “unlikely leaders,” people who are effective but atypical leaders. In that blog, I describe leaders whom others have described “as quiet, dry and even bland,” or “compassionate and empathetic.” None of these qualities are top of mind when most people opine about executive presence.

I have ideas about executive presence, but I supplement my ideas with research and business literature. I was recently pleased to find an article that purports to help leaders develop their executive presence, in a manner that is not off-putting. Here are some of my insights, plus a few I’ve discovered along the way.

Standing Out is OK

At least 30% to 40% of my clients are members of underrepresented groups (e.g., racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, neurodiverse/differently abled, etc.). Unsurprisingly, they wonder how they can “better fit in” and embody this elusive executive presence. I often explain that quiet confidence is a component of presence, and part of that means standing out — and owning whatever qualities we have that cause us to stand out.

executive presence in Black woman with natural hairHere’s an analogy to make this more concrete: anyone who has ever put a drop of food colouring in a glass of water or milk knows that a single drop of blue or orange cannot blend in. Instead, it makes the liquid change a little bit because of its presence. I think this is a useful analogy. Clear-coloured water isn’t better or worse than blue or orange-tinted water; it’s just different, because of the presence of something that stands out. That drop does not try to blend in with the water or the milk. It’s quietly and calmly confident in its uniqueness, and it changes its surroundings.


A related concept is impact. That same drop of blue or orange food colouring has an impact on the full glass of water or milk. Likewise, it’s essential to know and remember that our thoughts, knowledge, character, and lived and professional experiences can have an impact on our work and those we work with. Sometimes the impact happens one on one; other times, that impact affects groups of people (or policies, procedures, etc.). All these types of impact are worthwhile.

We need to remember that when we have a one-of-a-kind perspective, that may help our organization remain ahead of the curve because of our unique insights. We have the potential to be invaluable, and that adds to our presence.

Body Language

Most discussions of executive presence eventually turn to body language. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we exude confidence. As executive coach, Adrian Gostick states in this April 2023 Forbes article, people with executive presence:

“Just seem more relaxed in their own skin. They express self-confidence and strength not in old-world ‘power stances,’ but by showing they are open: eyes alert, smiling, legs and torso pointed to the person speaking. When contemplating, they may lean back in their chairs, hands behind their heads; when making a point, they may lean in.”

Of course, all of this is infinitely easier when we have the peace of mind that comes from feeling comfortable and welcome within our workplaces rather than being preoccupied with the need for self-protection and covering at work. So, remind yourself that it’s good to be unique and you’re well positioned to have a meaningful impact. Hopefully, this alone will help you walk a little taller.

authenticity adds to presenceSincerity/Authenticity

People who possess executive presence behave in ways that allow others to get a good sense of them. Although ideally, they have appropriate professional boundaries, they share enough about themselves that others can see them as genuine and relatable. Others can get to know them well enough to trust them.


The best modern leaders possess emotional intelligence and are not self-absorbed. They care about their people and about the things that matter to their people (e.g., their career mobility, their wellness and the wellness of their loved ones, etc.). In addition, effective leaders understand how their behaviour affects others. For more on self awareness, consider reading or listening to previous blogs Self-Awareness is Crucial for Leaders and Leaders and the Self-Awareness Gap.

You’ll notice that most of the dimensions that I’ve focused on are personal rather than technical and aren’t linked to the mechanics of leadership or management. In my experience, leaders don’t fail because they lack knowledge or so-called “hard skills.” So, by sharing some subtle ideas and advice in the personal/interpersonal realm, my genuine hope is that more leaders will embrace some of these more modern aspects of leadership that will help them be more successful – and more pleasant to be around.


Did this article spark any career-related questions, plans or concerns?

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More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.

I/O Advisory Services Inc. – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations TM.

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