Sending the Signals of Leadership Presence

Sending the Signals of Leadership Presence

Sending the Signals of Leadership Presence

In these highlights of a recent conversation with Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving, I answer questions about what leadership presence is -- and what it isn't.

If you have questions or comments for me, I'd love to hear from you!

Denver: There are many of us who know leadership presence when we see it, but how do you develop it? My next guest has come out with a new book that helps explain how. She is Carol Kinsey Goman and her book is titled Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. Carol, my first question is: what is leadership presence, and what is it not? 

Carol: The easiest thing to talk about is what it is not because that’s what I found out first when I started working with clients. I would get clients who were very technically savvy; they had tons of leadership potential; they might’ve even had a leadership title, but that didn’t necessarily translate into leadership presence. It isn’t intelligence, technical knowledge, and even your business results. What it is something … more elusive actually. It’s how people perceive you. 

Leadership presence is the impact of the signals that you send by your body language, your emotional state, and your communication style. Notice that none of those necessarily reveal anything about your true character and talents -- but they all influence the way people perceive you.

Denver: So interesting. What’s the goal of leadership presence? What does it help accomplish? 

Carol: First of all, it sets you up for that next promotion, and it lets you stand out from your peers when you’re being evaluated. But mainly, the way I work with people, whether it’s in a book, a speech, or a consulting session, is to help them align other people’s perception with their best, authentic self. 

And authenticity is where you have to start. Because if you’re trying to “fake it till you make it,” or pretend, then I am not a good coach for you, and the techniques in the book or seminar aren’t particularly helpful. Because my clients and audiences are already talented leaders. I tell people, “You already are everything you need to be. What you might need help with is expressing those qualities -- and that’s what I am really good at helping you do.”

Denver: In your book, Carol, you identify the five Cs, and that’s as in the letter C, of leadership presence. So let’s run through each of them starting with “credibility.”

Carol: Credibility means that you can be knowledgeable, you can be innovative, you can be skilled, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that other people see you as the credible leader you authentically are. And sometimes that’s because of communication habits that get in the way. 

First of all, you need to learn how to be concise. Attention spans are really short today. And if there’s one thing that I hear consistently from chief executive officers when I am working with people that they’re grooming to be senior leaders, it is: “Please help them get to the point.”

It’s not that you always have to do this, but boy, if you don’t have that skill for the times that you need it, then you’re going to be lost because your audience will be long gone. “Getting to the point” is just not a nice-to-have communication skill, it’s crucial to being perceived as credible. 

Denver: You talk about qualifiers– people trying to explain things or qualifying. Are men or women more inclined to use qualifiers when speaking? 

Carol: Unfortunately, we women are four times more likely to use qualifiers when speaking. We are much more likely to start our sentences or our contributions with things like, “This may be a stupid idea,” or “You’ve probably already thought about this,” or something else that absolutely then makes whatever we’re going to say next almost obsolete.

I advise women (and men) to drop the qualifiers, and say, “Here’s my idea for that,” not “This is a dumb idea, but take a look at it.” If you’ll just state it, and you will be perceived as much more credible.

Denver: The second C is for “confidence.” Carol, why are we attracted to people who are confident? 

Carol: It’s a very strange psychological connection that we believe that people who are confident are also competent, and you and I know that this is not always valid. There are lots of people that come across as highly confident who really don’t know what they’re doing. And the unfortunate part is that all of you who are competent aren’t going to appear that way unless you also appear to be confident. Now, you can say, “Well, that is just not fair.” And I agree it isn’t, but that’s the way brains are honed. That’s how people are going to perceive you. 

Denver: Talk about some of the non-verbal cues that display confidence.

Carol: First of all, good posture is key. If I’m at a conference speaking on “body language for leaders” or “body language for women who lead,” and I’m talking to the audience beforehand, if I mention the topic of my speech, the first thing everyone does is straighten their posture. We innately know that posture is really important when it comes to being perceived as a leader. 

Confidence is nonverbally displayed through height and space. If you are tall, you have an advantage. That’s why we have so many CEOs that are taller than the average population -- because we unconsciously perceive that tall people are more confident and competent. If you’re on stage and you move on the stage instead of standing in one place, you look more confident. 

Denver: I want to ask you about the third C, which is “connection.” 

Carol: Connection signals are incredibly important today because empathy in this unsettled, chaotic conditions that most of us find ourselves, nothing is more important for a leader to display than connection through empathy. And of course, you can be empathetic verbally; you can be empathetic in your body language, in those warm signals (smiling, nodding, eye contact, and so on); but the absolutely most powerful signal of empathy is empathetic listening. More important than what you say and how you look is to listen is you ability to really listen to people. 

And that means being fully present. Putting away distractions, focusing all of your attention on the other person — then asking questions to make sure you understand, like: “Tell me more about the situation” or “Did I understand you to say…?”

The most difficult part for many coaches and leaders is to ignore the urge to prematurely offer our opinion or advice. 

Denver: This gets us to the fourth C, which maybe you can speak about, which is “composure.”

Carol: There’s incredible power in simply being composed. When I say simply, I don’t mean that it’s simple to do because we all have those situations, those trigger situations where we automatically go into fight/ flight/ freeze, some response. We say things that we don’t mean, that we wouldn’t say later, because the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) has hijacked the prefrontal cortex, and we simply aren’t thinking straight. 

So, the ability to think straight requires that you have some kind of technique to interfere between the trigger event — someone asking you that threatening question, or interrupting you, or whatever it is that you automatically respond to. And when that trigger event happens, you say to yourself, “Stop.” You take a deep breath, you exhale. And some people even give themselves a little, one-word pep talk or two-word pep talk like, “Got it” or “OK” or “Relax” in order to then choose how you want to respond. 

And I know that sounds like that’s going to take time, but really thinking the word “stop,” taking a breath, and thinking one word to yourself doesn’t take any time at all. And in doing that, you can get back control, and you can make choices in the way you want to respond. 

Denver: The final C is for “charisma.” And a lot of people believe that you’re either charismatic or you’re not, and they believe they’re not. What would you say to them, Carol? 

Carol: I’d say that if your idea of charisma is a celebrity making a flamboyant entrance to command the attention of everyone present, you’re probably right. Most of us aren’t going to be able to pull that one off. But while that is a fitting display of charisma for celebrities, it’s not realistic, nor even needed to project leadership charisma. And what I found, sometimes to my delight and sometimes to my amazement, is that you can project charisma by understanding where your strength is and playing to that strength, or as I think of it: “relaxing into that strength.”

For example, I once worked with a chief executive officer who was one of the worst communicators I had ever seen. I mean, just an awful speaker. And yet, he was amazingly charismatic. His entire organization hung on every word he spoke because he had credibility. He had worked his way up in that company and done almost every job. So when he spoke, it was from such a deep well of experience that he could relax into that and, in doing so, project his own brand of charisma.

Denver: We have just scratched the surface. Carol, you have so many tips and strategies in this wonderful book, Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. And as people look forward to 2021, and want to display more presence, this book will serve as a field guide.

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  • Zoë Anne

    Leaders with impressive presence have a certain level of situational awareness.

  • Daniel Eastwood

    Great interview

  • Lewis Sunderland

    Interesting !

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Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Leadership Expert

Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence." and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at

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