The Truth of Leadership Presence

The Truth of Leadership Presence

When I was a freshly minted college graduate I was offered the chance to go into the healthcare field – accepting a job in pharmaceuticals with a small mid-western company. I had no legitimate business pedigree. Had never sold anything in my life so I really wasn’t qualified to move into the sales position I was being asked to assume.


The company was small – with limited to no research and development operation – the pipeline and the current product portfolio, pedestrian at best.


But the organization had a unique culture – built on the shoulders of its founder, a modern day Horatio Alger character.


Mr. K was larger than life.  His story – like most great narratives – began with humble beginnings and conflict. Legend had it that he had started in sales himself some 3 decades before – and made more in bonus in his first year than the president of his company. And as is typical, the powers that be halved his territory. The next year he did it again.


The next “restructure” was just around the corner when Mr. K took a most unusual course. He decided to start his own company. No science background. Limited to no funding so he mortgaged his home and meager possessions to buy the rights to an obscure calcium supplement and then set to work selling, packaging, and shipping from his basement.


And the legend was born.


Some 25 years later that little basement operation generated almost 80 million in revenue per year – yes, tiny by pharmaceutical industry standards (even in 1980 when I joined) but stunning for a company birthed in such a manner.


Mr. K’s rallying cry was elegantly simple – produce and you will share in the results. And we’ll do that by hiring great sales people and surrounding them with best in class leaders. Together our culture will trump all the pipelines in the world.


People – leadership – culture.


All of this sounded good at the time – and my guess is that most of the new hires that joined me sort of bought in.


“Sort of” ended one day in June of 1980 when I joined a fledgling class of new recruits who had gathered in our home offices.


On that day all of us had a brush with what visionary leadership really meant.


Third week of initial headquarter training and the days were long and they were hard. Then late on a Wednesday there was a rustle in the back of our classroom – and all of us turned to the door where an older gentlemen in a brilliant blue blazer had walked in. By his very demeanor we knew he was someone of importance.


I should note that by this time Mr. K was a bit of a legend – and actually owned the Kansas City Royals baseball team. Rich beyond anything I could imagine – and the most successful person I had ever seen. Our meeting leader was a bit unnerved to see him simply standing there and rushed to invite him to speak to the group.


I remember watching him confidently stride to the front of the room where he gripped a podium and paused to quietly survey the room – as if he were trying to memorize our faces.


When he finally spoke he said this, “Well, you must be good….or you wouldn’t be here.”


Thirty-two heads rose a little higher. Thirty-two hearts likely quickened a bit too.


For the next 15 minutes he told us his story – the obstacles and the challenges – and he made it abundantly clear we were on the precipice of unrivaled opportunity. In that short span of time Mr. K did 3 things that likely changed the trajectory of my professional life.


  1. He shared a vision greater than I could personally imagine – and he made clear that I could be a part of that vision.


  1. He made me believe that by my very presence I was more special than I probably was – but I believed it anyway.


  1. He invited me to join him in this great odyssey.


I share this little vignette from 38 plus years ago with you because I believe its importance is just as relevant today as it was then. Mr. K was the first transformative leader I was to meet in my business life – his capacity to touch people extended far beyond his bank account, the Royals, and his reputation. No, there was something more and I have spent the better part of four decades trying to quantify and qualify just what that was.


The story didn’t quite end there by the way. Two years later – and after establishing myself somewhat as a sales professional – I got a call early one Saturday morning. Yes, it was Mr. K – and though I know he didn’t know me at all in this company of thousands – he was reaching out to thank me for my hard work, and to again convey how important I was to our future.  A ten-minute call to a “nobody” to reconfirm that what I did made a difference.


I ended up investing my entire career with that “little company that could.” We grew into one of the five largest global firms in the industry. I guess Mr. K was right.


Today I work with companies and leaders across a very broad spectrum – from senior executives to entry level employees – and one of the areas I invest a great deal of time discussing is the sometimes nebulous subject of Leadership Presence – often referred to as Executive Presence.


I’ve become more and more convinced that Leadership Presence is greatly misunderstood – hence the reason some have decided to call it by the wrong name. There is nothing that is linked to title or organizational standing associated with the transformative power of Leadership Presence.


Forget “executive.”


The same for the common default of calling it the “It Factor” – falling back on former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s attempt to define pornography back in 1964 – “I know it when I see it.”


The It Factor isn’t ethereal – it isn’t granted to a few at birth and denied to everyone else. No, it can be quantified – and it can become an acquired skill set for most – if we understand it and recognize its importance.


Leadership Presence might be best described this way  – “that rare combination of character, substance, and style and that inspires others to willingly follow.”


That simple.


And to break it down still further – 3 components that distinguish High LP practitioners from the masses.


  • Character/gravitas– Behaviorally those with exceedingly high “CG” speak with confidence – they demonstrate decisiveness and integrity – they enjoy high emotional intelligence – and their reputation and standing make them someone others are prepared to listen to.
  • Substance/communication– The key behaviors that might demonstrate high “SC” – compelling communication skills – the capacity to command and/or read their audience – appropriate assertiveness – and an understanding of body language.
  • Style/appearance– The key behaviors that convey high “SA” – grooming/polish – your overall physical appearance – the sophistication of your attire – and the vigor with which you present yourself.


Let’s walk this back a bit. If you buy into the notion that Leadership Presence can be described in behavioral terms as per the example above then I would ask you to think of it this way.


Character/Gravitas represents foundationally who we are. And this one piece transcends everything else. We look to individuals of high character because it is easiest to place our trust in them.  If it’s the final “painting” the world sees when they look at us then CG represents the oils or the watercolors that will build it.  The Center for Talent Innovation suggests that up to 67% of what constitutes others perception of Leadership or Executive Presence can be found in the one area of gravitas.


Substance/Communication represents how we go about portraying our character to the world.Using the same artist’s metaphor – SC are the brush strokes we use to bring the painting to life. The Center for Talent Innovation data suggests some 28% of what constitutes Leadership Presence may be found in the area of communication – and these verbal and nonverbal skills either convey a compelling message or they don’t.


Style/Appearance is the last major dimension and it represents the filter our audience looks through to see us.  This “image” is the final product and though data suggests appearance counts for only 5% of Leadership Presence it remains critically important.  Metaphorically, this is the finished canvas – the painting the world looks at.  But like a digital copy of the Mona Lisa, without the work of the master that created it – all the image enhancement techniques are a poor second to the real thing. Translation – a great many would-be leaders are so enamored with style that they may not recognize that astute observers can’t be fooled.


Which takes us back to that June day in 1980 when I had my first brush with Leadership Presence.


One might say it was the overwhelming gravitas of the man that stole the show that day but I doubt it. I was to meet similarly successful businessmen in the years that followed. Most couldn’t carry Mr. K’s blazer.


Others might point out the communication skills – the sheer demeanor he exhibited. He was a quintessential salesman after all. And yes, maybe that was a factor.


That darn royal blue sports jacket was pretty cool too. I didn’t run across too many major league team owners growing up in rural North Carolina.


I believe there were a combination of factors at play that day – each conveyed a message of Leadership Presence that touched me. And though I stand by the qualities and the key behaviors outlined above I know there was a larger factor at play.


So much of our focus on great leaders is invested in understanding what they do and how it makes us feel about them. 


Gravitas, Substance, Style – all so critically important to be sure.


But 38 years later I recognize the real truth behind Leadership Presence.


The great ones manage to change the way we feel about ourselves.


That is their real gift.






*Two tremendous resources to learn more about Leadership Presence – the aforementioned Center for Talent Innovation and Bates Communication, Inc. – both experts in the field and resources I have pulled from for this blog.












  • Kevin Bacon
    Posted at 01:44h, 01 November Reply

    Well said Tim! The presence you speak to was felt by many who knew the man in the blue jacket and if they listened & learned from his presence, they were rewarded with values that helped them transform others to a higher ‘presence’! I enjoy reading your blogs; look forward to more…

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