Five Building Blocks for Closing the Gap Between Personal and Executive Presence

 Part 1: Minding the Gap

By Julie Benezet

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  The ever-quotable Oscar Wilde gives what seems like obvious advice. However, for many leaders that’s easier said than done.

It is not that they don’t want to be themselves. It’s just that being oneself is . . . well, complicated. Somehow it does not always square easily with what executives believe they are supposed to project to succeed as leaders.

As we begin a new year with its promise of opportunities for personal and organizational growth, I thought this important topic merited more space than what one blog will permit. Therefore, it will appear in two parts. This first part will lay out the importance of closing the gap between personal and executive presence. The second part will appear next week and describe five building blocks to close that gap.

The Challenge of Being the “Real Me”

Recently, I heard the following comments from three talented senior leaders:

  • “I feel I have finally achieved enough in my role that I am ready to let down my guard a bit and let the real me shine through.”
  • “I feel like an imposter. I just lucked into my job. I love the positive reinforcement where my perfectionist tendencies serve me well, but it stresses me out. In my personal life, I am not the slightest bit perfectionistic. I am happier there.”
  • “Winning is a scary place. I come from a timid family that nurtured the feeling of not winning. Who am I when I win?”

While these private admissions describe several aspects of their respective personal histories, the subtext contains three related themes.

  • The real me is not good enough to succeed: My real personality might not be acceptable to those whose expectations I have to meet to succeed in my leadership role.
  • Being myself is a risky business: To be the person I want to be involves risk. What if others don’t like me, think I’m stupid, or decide I’m unqualified?
  • Winning means being someone else: Winning may mean behaving in a way that is different from how I was raised to be, so how I could possibly win and still be myself?

reflection in a mirrorA common thread among these themes is, “I’m not sure the ‘real me’ is good enough to succeed as a leader.” They imagine that the person they really are falls short of what they view is required for successful executive presence.

In expressing this anxiety, executives frequently allude to the Imposter Syndrome, the sense that what people see is not who they really are. The syndrome shares similarities with the gap between personal and executive presence because both involve issues of self-esteem. A full-on imposter, however, is a clinical condition in which a person so devalues his or her identity that they need an audience to establish a realistic sense of who they are. Unfortunately, despite often having genuine gifts, they mimic the behaviors they believe will get the admiration of others, rather than behaving in a way that reflects who they truly are.

Fortunately, most executives can distinguish between when they are being real versus fake, even when being real is hard. Their challenge is to understand, accept, and strengthen the belief in their real selves.

The “Real Me” and Self Belief

It is not surprising that executives worry that they are not good enough to lead. Few things can challenge one’s sense of their value in the world more than trying to bring about change for organizations and themselves.

Leadership requires taking chances to pursue new ideas, discard the old when they no longer serve a purpose, and persuade others to rally around change. It demands a sturdy ego to not personalize the walls of defensive resistance that arise in response to new ideas. New initiatives frequently are greeted with derision, passive aggression, or outright avoidance. These reactions can cause discomfort even in leaders with strongest senses of self as they encounter negative, reactive behavior.

Uncertainty about what to do in the face of such behavior tempts leaders to escape the discomfort of driving change. Instead they adopt a more placating, crowd pleasing version of their ideas. As a consequence, not only do they end up compromising their vision, they also undermine who they are and what they want to achieve.  Success means developing a belief in your value that is strong enough to withstand the anxiety of dealing with adversity.

Personal Presence and Executive Presence: The “Real You” Matters

Xerox CEO Ursula BurnsBeing oneself is not easy, but it is critical to leadership success. To behave in a way that respects both your personal history and dreams for the future is key to others believing in you.

Descriptions of executive presence focus on self-confidence, behaving as if you have everything handled. In reality, when you listen to interviews with successful executives, they love to talk about all the mistakes they have made and what they learned from them. When we have shared interviews of such successful executives as Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and Ursula Burns of Xerox with attendees of our The Journey of Not Knowing program, the first word they use to describe the interviewees is “real.” The second is “believable.”

Credibility lies at the core of leadership. As supported by years of emotional intelligence research,  if you are anyone but yourself, you will have a hard time convincing people to follow you. Accepting and understanding what makes you unique gives you strength and direction, both of which you can pass on to others. That does not mean you stay fixed in place. What it means is the better you understand and accept yourself, the better equipped you will be to flex, adapt and evolve through the discomfort of the new.

Robust self-belief does not grow overnight. However, building a repertoire of experiences and learning from them will develop a toolkit from which to draw to introduce new ideas, navigate diverse behaviors, and open new doors. Most important, it will develop your self-confidence to navigate the discomfort of the unknown and know that no matter how scary a challenge, the wisdom you have gleaned will help you discover and deliver forward-looking solutions.

Stay tuned for “Part 2: Five Building Blocks,” appearing on January 9, 2018.

© 2018, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

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