Whether you realize it or not, your executive presence as a leader in higher education is extremely important. In fact, your executive presence will likely determine how successful you’ll be in your leadership career.

I specialize in helping higher education leaders develop a strong executive presence.  Let’s walk through the three pillars of executive presence and how you can enhance your professional credibility by employing the leadership traits and habits required for unlimited success.

What Is Executive Presence?

Executive presence is widely misunderstood. At its core, executive presence is about projecting confidence and competence along with a sincere interest in serving others.

A leader with a strong executive presence displays a solid command of both industry and subject matter knowledge, while being open to hearing new ideas and thoughts. Executive presence is also tied to one’s ability to think abstractly about complex situations and apply insights appropriately.

In a higher education environment, leaders with strong executive presence are seen as strong and capable leaders by colleagues, staff, students, and executive leaders.  They earn respect wherever they go.

Executive Presence in Action

Executive Presence is somewhat intangible, but you typically know it when you see it.  Take a moment now to recall the leaders you’ve known whom you admire most.  What traits and characteristics did you most admire?

Perhaps it was their ability to project confidence while remaining approachable.  Maybe it was their skill at handling difficult situations with grace. Or, perhaps you respected them for their in-depth knowledge, unparalleled skills, and eagerness to help others learn and grow.   Leaders with a strong executive presence display all these things and more.

The 3 Pillars of Executive Presence 

While there is not one universal set of rules that determine how a leader will be perceived, there are traits that are common among the very best leaders.  To improve your leadership prowess, I recommend that you first focus on the three pillars of executive presence.

 1. Technical Competence — Subject Matter Expertise

There isn’t a single leader in higher education who can make a positive impact without first being exceptionally skilled in their chosen career field.

For example, Provosts not only lead the academic function in an institution, they are experts in their chosen academic fields, whether that be engineering, anthropology, or any other subject matter. Their academic expertise, though, may have nothing to do with the leadership skills that Provosts must also master to be successful. Hence, it’s vital that Provosts must understand their own leadership aptitude and how this key competency influences ability to perform at their peak as leaders.

A CIO, as an example of an administrative leader in higher education, needs to have deep knowledge in technical infrastructure, enterprise systems, and technologies influencing academic and research environments. CIOs must also understand other functional areas of the educational institution, including enrollment management, research administration, and library services, just to mention a few areas. Technological skills alone are simply not enough to be an effective CIO in higher education.

The higher one climbs in the ranks in higher education, the more one must master to be an effective leader. Administrative and academic leaders must have a solid understanding of complex organizational politics in the university or college environment. They must also have a deep understanding of the complex needs and issues that arise when serving a diverse student population.

Executives must have a solid understanding of the organization’s culture.  They also need to have an exceptional command of issues relating to governance, including the role of the boards of trustees, presidential cabinets, etc.

Executives in higher education also need a comprehensive understanding of alumni, donors, and even how the local community impacts the organization. They must also understand outside market influences and how macroeconomic changes impact higher educational institutions.

In short, the first pillar of executive presence is to be prepared, knowledgeable, and thoroughly versed in all the areas that can impact your leadership success.

2. Emotional Intelligence

In his groundbreaking work on Emotional Intelligence (EI), Daniel Goleman found that EI was a stronger predictor of leadership success than IQ.

Emotional Intelligence refers to one’s ability to translate emotional cues into strategic thinking and behaviors.  People with strong EI possess a solid command of their own emotional states as well as the emotional needs of those around them.

Leaders with strong EI demonstrate confidence in themselves and their abilities.  They are assertive communicators who think before they speak, maintain healthy boundaries, and connect well with others.

Emotional Intelligence and executive presence go hand-in-hand in higher education.  Leaders with high EI are responsive communicators, while those with low EI are reactive communicators. The difference is substantial.

Emotionally Intelligent leaders never shy away from difficult conversations. They are adept at asking insightful questions and are open to hearing opinions that conflict with their own.  They are also confident enough to make the tough calls that others shy away from making.

For example, a CIO must be able to balance competing technology needs for faculty, students, and administrators. This can be particularly tricky in the face of budget constraints and lengthy program development lead times.  An emotionally intelligent CIO knows how to negotiate priorities with empathy and respond with a cool head when heated discussions regarding technology demands arise.

When your EI is high, your sense of self-awareness is strong. You also are attuned to how others are likely to react or respond in one-on-one and group meetings. Because you’re so good at reading people, you know how you’re perceived and can adjust your communication style when a situation warrants a change.

Self-awareness and emotional adeptness are traits that are highly correlated with leadership success, which is why boosting your Emotional Intelligence is one of the smartest steps you can take to improve your executive presence.

3. Conceptual Thinking Skills

Conceptual thinking refers to a leader’s ability to recognize both short-term and long-term needs and make strategic decisions that satisfy each appropriately.

The best leaders know how to look at situations from various viewpoints and act with intention.

A leader with strong conceptual thinking skills can

  • Synthesize complex concepts and ideas rapidly
  • Identify patterns in data and situations that other people might not detect
  • Employ analytic thinking effectively
  • Simplify even complex ideas so others have a greater understanding of what’s happening

Conceptual thinkers are creative thinkers who can go from the abstract to the concrete without hesitation. Leaders with strong conceptual thinking skills generate more innovative ideas and develop cutting-edge solutions more quickly and easily than non-conceptual thinkers.

Some people are conceptual thinkers by nature, but conceptional thinking skills can also be learned. If you want to improve your executive presence, mastering conceptual thinking is a leadership imperative.

Build Your Executive Presence by Mastering the 3 Pillars

When you build your technical competence, strengthen your Emotional Intelligence, and master conceptual thinking, your executive presence will soar.

If you or your team need some help with any of the three pillars, contact me.  I specialize in helping leaders in higher education strengthen their executive presence and I would be delighted to do the same for you and your leadership team.