How Is the Idea of Executive Presence like Obscenity?

“Executive presence” is one of those things, that, like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” In other words, it’s extremely subjective. Different pairs of eyes see different behaviors as demonstrating “executive presence.”

Part of the important work we can do is to address our innate biases when we think: “That person is confident” or “that person seems powerful.” Why do we think that? What behaviors are we observing that lead us to these conclusions? Posture? Gesture? Volume? Clothing? Are any of these also informed by innate qualities of the person: height, gender, race, age, accent or dialect, physical abilities?

Baked into the idea of “executive presence” is an implicit judgment that: “people who act in these ways are qualified to be executives,” and, of course, “people who don’t, are not.”

Can we broaden our idea of what leaders look and act like? Can we admit that “I know it when I see it” isn’t a good benchmark for promoting and elevating voices? What would happen if we acknowledged our assumptions and set them aside, while we work to create systems that open all our doors a little wider, to invite many varieties of leaders?

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