It seems like eons ago that I ran a Silicon Valley startup. The previous CEO had squandered most of the company’s $11 million of venture funding, so the VCs hired me to provide some adult supervision and turn things around.
The thing is, I’d never run a company before. When I asked the executive recruiter why they picked me over candidates with more direct related experience, he said, “They all thought you had executive presence. You do, you know.”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t know.”
That was the truth. I didn’t even know what he meant. But I had been a reasonably competent senior executive for a good many years so I just assumed it had something to do with that and went along with it.
Since then, I’ve come to understand that certain people have a certain presence about them. If you’ve ever met a highly accomplished executive or business leader, you know what I’m talking about. You inevitably come away feeling like you’ve been in the presence of someone unique. Someone special. Someone who can make things happen.
I know that sounds a little creepy, but it’s the truth. As for whether they really are special or not, that depends more on their ability to deliver results than on presence alone. Still, leadership presence is a good thing to have. It’s sort of a big deal, if you ask me.
So, where do people get this sort of attribute, this executive presence? Why do some people have it and others don’t? Are they born with it or do they acquire it? Questions, questions, questions. Here are the answers:
They’re not born with it. Brains alone will only get you so far in the real world. I think the way you’re brought up, your experiences from early childhood through youth, have a major and lasting impact on how things turn out for you. So does your experience in the adult world. That’s where leadership presence comes from. Experience. It also comes from …
Being right a lot. Actually, it’s more about your ability to reason effectively. To troubleshoot and make smart decisions. To digest lots of information and use it to solve really hard problems. To boil down complex issues to relatively simple concepts that people can understand. If you can do all that well, I guarantee you’re going to be right a lot. Which means people will look to you for answers.
Knowing your stuff cold. Have you ever watched a so-called expert fumble around for an answer or explanation when challenged? It makes you cringe and almost feel sorry for the guy. That does not inspire confidence or project strength. It doesn’t come across as anything remotely like leadership. You’ve got to know your stuff, be sharp, and be prepared. That’s what enables you to think on your feet and come across like you know what you’re talking about. Like you know what the heck you’re doing.
Confidence. While it’s great to be confident that you know your stuff, the most important component of confidence comes from failure. You see, once you’ve taken some risks, fallen down a few times, and realized that it wasn’t so bad, that gives you strength, self-confidence, and courage. And learning from your mistakes gives you wisdom, an added bonus.
Thinking a few steps ahead. I’m a compulsive control freak. As it turns out, that’s an excellent leadership quality because it makes you think everything through way before it happens and stay a few steps ahead of everyone else. Granted, it can be exhausting, so you may want to balance that out a little. Meditation helps. So does a cocktail or two after a tough day of trying to outthink everyone.
Adversity. Want to know why so many highly accomplished people start with nothing or come from tough urban neighborhoods like New York City? It’s the highly competitive, high-stress environment. That’s also why high-tech areas like Silicon Valley are great leadership breeding grounds. Resistance. Friction. Competition. That’s what breeds strong leaders. And if you’re a survivor, you come across that way.
Believing you're special. It’s one thing to be special. I seriously doubt if things could have turned out much different for a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet. But a key aspect of Steve Jobs was his much talked about “reality distortion field.” You see, from the time his adopted mother told him that he was special because they chose him, he truly believed he was special. That’s where his unique presence came from. It’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I do, however, have one big caveat about the whole leadership presence thing. It’s easy to mistake a good BSer for the real deal. I had a friend growing up who had a plaque on his wall that read, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull$#*!.”
The guy lived by that motto. But I think he missed his calling. He would have made a great politician.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.