Several years ago I was passed up for a promotion. The essential reason was that I did not have executive presence in the way that this particular executive thought I should. I don’t blame him really for thinking that way. He gave me some examples that in his mind prevented him from elevating me and essentially representing him and the department to the organization in an executive capacity. Of course I did not agree with that person and within a year took a “C” level job in a different organization. What did the person who interviewed me see in me that this person did not? I have come to find out that it is a combination of both authority and humility.
Did I really just write that? Did I just write that I have humility? By now you should know that I don’t, at least not in large quantities. I have an accurate view of myself, and when that goes awry, I rely on people around me to shoot it to me straight. I will not be addressing the humility part here, but I will comment on authority. The previous leader linked executive presence to authority. People who you work with need to know that you are in charge and in control. That was the sentiment of this particular leader. I could not agree with that less. In a significant way, the feedback that leader gave me as they told me why I was not ready for the next level has shaped me and contributed greatly to my success at the next level. I learned then and continue to learn now that there are two way to use authority, as a sword, or as leverage.
As a leader there will be times when you just have to lay down the law and make command decisions. As an Information Security officer in my current place of employment, I have to do this frequently and it needs to be documented in meeting minutes. I am very comfortable with that and have no problem there. That being said, that time needs to be as limited as possible. Having people do something because you and your position said so will have a short shelf life. In truth you yourself do not have authority, your role does. Leadership looks for people who know how to leverage the authority that position contains. Once you link that authority to your personal identity it becomes a sword and can be wielded whenever the person carrying it sees fit.
A person with executive presence does not look authoritative, they look driven, those are very different. A person with executive presence clearly understands the mission, their position, and how they can leverage the authority that comes with their positions; the assets on their team, technology, and any other tools, to advance the mission. That is what people see when they see someone with executive presence. I remember being told once that if you wear a suit people will respect you. We all have a response to that, but some people really do think that way. Wearing a suit for any other reason than to honor the people you are with or to look in the mirror and say, “dang I look good today,” might mean that you are trying to wield authority.
Like with anything else we should look to achieve balance. There will be times to use authority as a sword, especially when the mission is at stake, but the sword should be the exception, not the rule. Leverage the authority that comes with your position to gather key people together and collectively lead them to a place that gets you all closer to the mission. Authority is a tough one to handle, it is easily tied to identity and then humility goes out the window. As leaders it is important to recognize that we do not have authority in and of ourselves, it is the position that has authority, we are entrusted with it to be used effectively to advance the mission.