Tempted to Punch? Know When to Pull Back

Most people don’t think about CEOs until a crisis: auto recall, data breach, insider trading. But a lot goes into the selection and molding of CEOs because – face it – it’s an important job and there’s a ton at stake (like financial performance, shareholder confidence, employee morale and reputation).

So what makes a great leader? Like the Supreme Court justice said, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”

"Executive presence" is a term consultants like to use. When I hear those words I picture the divisional CEO of a company I used to work for. He had a commanding voice, walked erect and briskly, and was given to garrulous speechifying in meetings.

I’ll admit it’s a narrow-minded definition. Like, from the 1960s.

Times have changed. Our definition of the ideal leader has broadened. Or has it? We talk a good game about diversity in the C-suite, but efforts to get there are fitful.

Women hold only 17 percent of corporate board seats in the United States. That’s not representative of the real world, where there are as many women as men, and in many instances women make more purchasing decisions than men.

There are many laudable efforts underway to even the score. I once served on a Diversity & Inclusion task force. As the communications representative, I advised on how to show employees that we were a progressive company, committed to improving performance by cultivating talent regardless of sex, race or background. We had some success; I witnessed firsthand how a group of smart, like-minded, sincere individuals can bring about change.

I was reminded of those days recently when I attended a breakout session titled Executive Presence at a conference for women in business. I was one of two men in the room – which is an advantage when you wish to quietly observe.

The presenter said not enough women are being sponsored for upward mobility. Why? Because male executives are the ones doing the sponsoring, and they’re looking for that elusive thing called Executive Presence. This is where it starts to get muddy.

Apparently, Executive Presence comprises three elements: 1) gravitas, 2) communication and 3) appearance. Of the three, executives say gravitas is the most important. (Appearance is more important than they admit, due to fear or litigation.) Gravitas – according to the presenter – is grace under pressure, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, reputation, vision and charisma.

Here’s my problem with the word gravitas. Merriam-Webster defines gravitas as a very serious quality or manner. It’s from the Latin gravas, or serious. Sure, companies want serious leaders, but leading is much more than being serious.

I understand the need to roll all those qualities up into one word, but to me, gravitas misses the mark. Who wants to follow someone who’s serious all the time? Granted, there’s a time to be serious. But, there’s also a time for a leader to be human, compassionate and even funny.
  • Human: In a newspaper interview on his first day on the job, one of my bosses admitted “I don’t have all the answers.” He signaled he alone couldn’t turn around a third-place news operation, that it would take a team. In the ensuing months we clawed our way to #1 because everyone contributed.
  • Compassionate: I had the pleasure of supporting a woman who ran a large commercial insurance business. She always spoke to her team with a passion and warmth that made us want to outperform for her. She commanded respect without garrulous speechifying. It was from the heart.
  • Funny: Maybe you saw Obama on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galafianakis, pitching the Affordable Care Act. Reactions were mixed, but I was pleasantly surprised that POTUS didn’t take himself too seriously and actually got off a few good lines.
What’s the common thread? Well, I think all are exceptional communicators. You can have the best intentions, clear vision and the intelligence to lead, but it’s for naught if not expressed effectively.

Still, the road to executive presence can be a rough one. Women trying to find their voice have less margin for error. One of the participants in the breakout I attended said “I’m often accused of being curt and short with people. That’s just the way I am.” Another recalled a contentious back-and-forth with a colleague in a meeting: “I was very polite throughout, but afterwards my boss said ‘you should have punched him between the eyes.’”

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