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Business Monday: Establishing executive presence – Mary T. O’Sullivan




By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, contributing writer

When you were made a leader, you weren’t given a crown, you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others.” – Jack Welch

What is Executive Presence? This question seems to baffle definition. Apparently, it’s a matter of “you know it when you see it”. One definition I came across begins with the assertion that leaders have “voluntary followers, a charismatic, transformational style, people focus, and positively seek risk”.

Recently, I was entering a hotel elevator during a conference. As I walked toward the opening doors, two people came bounding out. First, a pretty, poised, flight attendant all in white, immediately followed by a tall man, who carried himself with perfect posture (despite toting along a few bags), and a pleasant look, but not smiling. He seemed to have an aura, or special bearing about him. They both held themselves with impressive dignity, and I could tell the man was the captain of a large flight crew, probably for a major airline, preparing for a long overseas flight. I sensed this before I noticed his multiple uniform ribbons, medals and stripes. He prevailed over his jovial flight crew, who immediately acknowledged his presence and authority with full attention.

As I observed his comportment, it reminded me of the quandary many leadership theorists find themselves in regarding executive presence. There was no doubt in my mind this man was the leader. He held himself, he used his facial expressions specifically, he commanded attention quickly. This man embodied executive presence, without speaking a word.

Another example of executive presence, a former company executive also possesses all of these attributes:

This leader came to his prestigious position on a circuitous path. In the Navy, he achieved the rank of Lt Commander, however, he achieved that rank by advancing through the enlisted ranks. The Navy has a name for these people – “Mustangs”, a name well suited for him. After many years of work in a competing company, he left for greener pastures.

This route to power supports the theory “Leaders tend to feel separate from their environment. They may work in organizations, but they never belong to them.”

He was a leader that made people not only feel good about themselves but better than they were before. He had a can-do, aggressive personality, but never forgot his past and those that helped him along the way. He set a vision of continuous improvement achieved by means of establishing his organization as a “Learning Organization”, and through his insistence on personal involvement, portrays that vision effectively.

This charismatic leader personally reached into the organization and gave his advice and counsel when asked. I engaged him when I faced a professional and personal crisis. In less than 15 minutes, he offered me a solution to the issue.

There are multiple examples of this leader solving people’s problems in order to right a wrong and instill his vision to his leadership team.

His charismatic, transformational leadership style is the principal reason he had many followers. He established loyalty throughout the organization and on every level. When he visited a site, he made the rounds to the dining center, the factory floor, the cubicle farms, the conference rooms. He kissed all the women and shook the hands of every man. He warmly hugs everyone he knows well. He calls out people by name. He comments on the beautiful views. His people focus is undeniable.

He sought risks in many ways as well. In his Business dealings, he was constantly encouraging our customers to see new ways of doing Business by his own direct engagement. He promoted out of the box thinking for his teams, setting goals that would seem almost unrealistic. I have seen many smart people struggle to understand what exactly he wanted, not because he wasn’t clear, but because (as in the old Apple Macintosh commercial) they failed to think different(ly).

He is one of those special leaders that is irreplaceable. In fact, his only major flaw is the inexplicable inability for anyone else in the organization to fill his shoes. Several years ago, he was the VP and General Manager of the local corporate location. Once he left, it seemed as if a great black hole formed, and five years later, that leadership void has never really been filled. Many employees think this is the leader’s way of ensuring the love and affection we have for him doesn’t go away. One time I saw him at a social event. I said, “We really miss you”. To which he replied, “I really miss me, too”.


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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