Unpacking the Seemingly Intangible Qualities of Executive Presence

Have you ever walked into a meeting, looked around the table and immediately known who was in charge? It’s not their seat placement; it’s their presence.

Suzanne Bates
Suzanne Bates

The best leaders exude an espirit de corps that sets them apart. Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications says, “For years, executive presence has been this mysterious X-factor in leadership.”

Leadership is a big bucket, but once you get past core skills like communicating and delegating, the qualities for success become more murky. People instinctively understand that intangible qualities like authenticity, resonance and wisdom are at the heart of great leadership. Yet these nuanced skills are challenging to assess and implement.

Bates, author of the forthcoming book, All the Leader You Can Be, the Science of Achieving Extraordinary Executive Presence (McGraw-Hill), has now codified the once seemingly elusive elements of executive presence. Bates and her team did extensive research in leadership and management, social action theory, communication theory, philosophy and ethics, to put forth the qualities of transformational leadership and a more modern view of executive performance that incorporates qualities of character and substance.

After years of working with senior executives, Bates says, “I searched for a science-based assessment that would provide real data to leaders on how others All the leader you can be book jacketperceive their influence and impact. We didn’t find it, so we decided to do the research ourselves. We developed the model, validated it with an independent panel of Ph.D. leadership experts, piloted it in 20 companies, and launched it about 1.5 years ago. It’s now used in about 40 companies. “
I recently used Bates’ online Executive Presence Assessment tool – ExPI – to evaluate a colleague. As someone who has used many assessment instruments, I found Bates’ model unique, and incredibly effective. Leaders are assessed on three dimensions:  their character, their substance, and their style. The overview (read at states, “Whether they realize it or not they (leaders), are always communicating who they are and what they value. The quality of their insight, judgment, and decision-making are constantly being evaluated. Their stakeholders look for integrity and wisdom in their words and actions, especially at critical moments.”

I began by assessing my colleague’s character using Bates’ five facets: Authenticity, Integrity, Concern, Restraint and Humility. The overview says, “These 10356016_squalities reflect a leader’s ability to build trust.” The examples and questions made me think more deeply about my colleague, and, quite honestly, myself. My colleague rated very high on the five facets, which is why so many people trust him as a leader. The assessment gave me pause to consider my own performance in these areas.

The next two dimensions, substance and style, were equally thought-provoking and robust. Evaluating a leader on qualities like practical wisdom, composure and intentionality enable the assessor, and ultimately the assesse, to understand what it really takes to build creditability and make execution happen.

My father, who hired and developed hundreds of people over his four-decade career, was fond of saying, “You can always tell the people who are going to get promoted.” He was right. We know Executive Presence when we see it. I’m impressed with Bates’ tool because it provides a clear template for modern leadership.

Being a decent communicator and a good delegator are no longer enough. Those are merely table stakes. Leaders who succeed are those who influence others to take action. The qualities required are nuanced, but as Bates has proven, character, substance and style can be measured. Our challenge now is to start teaching those qualities.