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Executive Presence Needs a Facelift

For over a decade I’ve had clients come to me about feedback that they’ve been given about executive presence. The feedback is rarely specific and often masks bias. Some examples: Your clients won’t take you seriously if your clothes are that bright. You need to have more swagger. You need to own the room. We can’t put you into a leadership role until we see your executive presence improve. You’re too aggressive. You’re not aggressive enough. 

What do you notice about this feedback? I find it to be highly subjective, biased, and totally amorphous. How does one increase their swagger? Sounds like an old MTV show about dating. Someone isn’t going to hire you because you wore a bright color? Really? An extremely specific and narrow group of largely white males continue to define executive presence leaving little room for anyone outside those narrow margins, and allowing obstacles for advancement to be erected at will.

There can be no doubt that executive presence was defined by and for white men because that’s who historically have occupied positions of professional power and leadership, but little has evolved to include everyone else who has joined the corporate world. We continue to measure the standard of leadership and competence by something little like the diverse reality we occupy.

Executive presence is real. In no way am I suggesting that effective, competent leaders don’t present an air of confidence and authority. That said, confidence doesn’t have to look like an extrovert or white or able-bodied or male or middle-aged. A professional shouldn’t have to contort to a razor-thin depiction of leadership that excludes absolutely everyone but a lead male actor from Mad Men.

I went to a TEDx talk last year in Chula Vista, Calif., where I heard William Hung – of American Idol fame – speak. Here’s what I noticed: he doesn’t stand or speak in a way that one would equate with old modalities of executive presence. He doesn’t need to. He is authentic, emotionally honest, and sure of himself. His humanity wasn’t coached out of him, and for this reason the audience fell in love with him and listened to every word he uttered.

For years I’ve used Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk in trainings as an example of incredible storytelling from someone who is reserved and in no way presents as a high-energy extrovert. Despite that, he has absolute command of his audience. Stevenson is a brilliant storyteller and uses his quiet, gentle nature to his advantage. There is nothing performative about him. He is credible and thoughtful.

Another TEDx talk I found compelling last year was Jillian Parramore’s talk entitled, How to be included. She was a vibrant, funny dynamic speaker who also happened to be disabled. We rarely, if ever see representations of executive presence with bodies with physical challenges and differences.

We are living in a time when we are questioning dominant narratives. It’s time we also make these challenges in the workplace. If we truly aspire to authentic diversity and inclusion, it can’t stop at one metric. We need to challenge every metric of bias and see the possibility of leadership in all shapes, colors, sizes, ages and personality types. How many leaders are barred from the boardroom simply because they fail to meet an antiquated image of power?

You want to know what I really think? I think this guy is bursting with presence. He’s skilled, confident and totally comfortable in his own skin which is what we claim is the embodiment of executive presence. If you disagree, ask yourself, why?

You can learn about reinventing executive presence by registering here:

Houghtailing’s writing regularly appears in national mainstream press outlets including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Worth, XO Jane, San Diego Business Journal, Yahoo! Finance, San Diego Union Tribune, Motherwell, and Thought Catalog. Houghtailing is the Co- Founder of Story Imprinting at

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