By Jacqueline Farrington
To be recognized as a leader, you first have to build the perception that you are one. Leadership roles often elude professionals due to the absence of “executive presence.”(EP) It accounts for 26 percent of what it takes to get that promotion, according to a recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Presence alone won’t get an individual promoted, but the lack of it will slow, if not stop, career progress. What are you doing to boost your EPQ? The study revealed that gravitas, appearance, and communication are essential components that affect executive presence. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at each of these behaviors and putting the research into pragmatic suggestions and tips for how to raise your EPQ.
Gravitas and Executive Presence
Gravitas is the primary building block of EP, according to 67 percent of senior executives polled in the survey. But what exactly is gravitas? The Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘speaking with weight, power or authority.” Establishing gravitas indicates to your organization that you have the credibility and authority to be a leader. So what enables a leader to speak with weight, power or authority? The research discovered that executives view gravitas as a compilation of six core characteristics:
· Confidence and calm under pressure
· Acting decisively—making and standing by tough choices
· Integrity and speaking truth to power
· Proving emotional intelligence
· Reputation and standing
This week, we focus on “Confidence and Calm Under Pressure”
After Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III’s US Airways Flight 1549 plane was hit by a flock of birds, both of its engines stalled and the plane began a rapid descent, while smoke began to fill the cabin. His initial thoughts were, “this can’t be happening, this doesn’t happen to me.” As he realized the plane would never make it to the runway, he recognized, “I need to come up with a plan,” and decided his best chance was to land the plane in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and the crew aboard the plane survived.
The ability to remain calm and confident under extreme stress is a critical component of establishing gravitas. 79 percent of executives believe this is crucial for women and 76 percent believe it’s a must for men.
While most of us won’t ever have to land a stalled plane, we do experience moments of extreme stress. Having the presence of mind, confidence, and courage in your abilities or convictions—be it in front of your boss or your Board—does indeed earn you more respect and the benefits that come with that.
How do these leaders do it?
Remaining calm under extreme pressure is a combination of two things: what happens in our brains and what happens in our bodies. In order to tackle those tough situations, we need to work both from the inside out and the outside in.
The Inside Out
In recent years, neuroscientists have been able to observe what happens inside the brain when people, like Captain Sully, are forced to make decisions and act under pressure. You might assume that these leaders don’t feel fear or are somehow less scared than the rest of us, however, that’s a false assumption. Fear is an automatic response to what the brain perceives as danger, generated automatically by the fear centers of the brain, such as the amygdala. As New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reflected on his experience on 9/11:
“I would say to myself, ‘I am going to do what my dad said. I am going to pretend I am calm. If I pretend I am calm, I can think better for everyone else and also that will give everyone else an example to remain calm.’ The best thing you can do in an emergency is just remain calm or pretend you are. You are going to be able to think much better, you are going to be able to think, “How do I make this better?”—Morning In America, Vol. 314
What, then, allows leaders to make effective decisions in extreme duress? How do they keep their fear from turning into paralysis or panic? Scientists have found that a crucial element is the ability to balance primitive, intense emotions against a more rational and deliberate thought process. This balancing act is known as metacognition—a sort of thinking about thinking.
Pilots call this skill “deliberate calm,” because staying calm under extremely stressful circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice. Captain Sully had logged over 25,000 hours of flying. He believed in his and his team’s ability to safely land the plane. With our coaching clients, we call this “confident uncertainty.” While Captain Sully didn’t have all the answers and there were many variables he couldn’t control, he focused on what he could control and what was the best action to take to safely land the plane. Rather than giving in to panic, paralysis and the “inevitable” crash of the plane, he asked himself, “How can I solve this problem?” He focused on action—what could he do next to improve the situation?
Of course, we’re not all pilots, but we are often forced to act in a crisis: tough questions from the Board and shareholders if profits are plummeting in a turbulent economy, managing the PR fallout from a failed product launch. Captain Sully was able to calmly tell his passengers to brace themselves for the landing on the Hudson River. By showing his personal calm and control, he was able to model behavior for the passengers and crew, averting panic in the cabin and allowing for an orderly exit from the plane, ensuring safety for all. Similarly good leaders can model behavior for their company. If you appear to have things under control, it will inspire confidence in everyone else that things will turn out all right.
Having the mindset of “confident uncertainty” allows us to recognize that we have the ability to look past the primal instinct of fear and thoughtfully decide how we need to think about a situation. Rather than focusing on the fear, metacognition allows us to rationally assess our options, focus on what we can control, and then settle on the best option. When we trust in our capabilities, track record, and expertise, we remind ourselves that we have the ability to effectively manage difficult or unprecedented problems. It allows us to remain calm when every cell in our body is screaming for us to panic.
The next time you’re faced with an extremely stressful situation, remind yourself of the skills and experience you have to help you problem solve. Tell yourself, “I may not have all the answers, or be perfect, but I do have the ability to choose how I want to respond to this situation, rather than react.” This is where having a high EPQ is key. Your executive presence can make the difference in people’s perception of whether the plane is crashing or landing safely.
In an upcoming article we’ll look further at the power of mindsets to help you remain calm under pressure as well as how to work from the “outside in” and use your body to keep the panic at bay.