Executive Presence: Shaping, Empowering, and Owning Your
Virtual Self-Portrait

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a workshop called “Executive Presence” with a top-notch group of women at The Commonwealth Institute. The energy in the room inspired me to sum up our experience together so that it can be shared beyond the walls of the room, and perhaps address some of the challenges we face every day as leaders in our companies.


Presence does not need to have the word executive in front of it to have impact. Presence is an energy.  Think of someone you are drawn to when they walk into a room. What does it take to achieve this type of presence? Together, at The Commonwealth Institute session, we defined presence in this way:

Presence requires self-awareness. When we are self-aware, we become deeply connected to our thoughts, and this can either limit or serve our ability to be fully present and to exude confidence, authenticity, respect, energy, understanding, humility, or vulnerability (depending on what the situation calls for). Our self-awareness builds as we begin to choose who we are by observing the thoughts we think. Presence is then amplified once we are grounded in consciously choosing to focus on the thoughts that serve us, rather than on the thoughts that limit us. Presence also encompasses both our mental and physical characteristics, which include appearance, body language, eye contact, and tone of voice.

Introducing the Self-Portrait

Let’s be honest: it’s easy to lose track of our presence. We get beat up every day by difficult situations at work and home. We pepper ourselves with constant negative thoughts that, when repeated, turn into limiting beliefs that we live out as if they are real. We also measure ourselves by what others think and by their negative reactions. In our session, we focused on breaking down the stories that are based on fiction and re-telling our stories based on facts, thus effectively creating the self-portrait that reveals our best self – the self that will succeed.

Painting our own “virtual” self-portrait forces us to focus on the positive aspects of our identity. I am fond of saying “you cannot outperform your self-portrait.” So, it’s important to get it right – to dig deep, put your strongest qualities front and center, and then build from there. You may have to replace the old portrait with a new one. That’s OK, because chances are, the old one evolved from unchecked self-criticism, or worse – from outside forces to which you had no opportunity to respond and were not based on facts. It is all made up!

The self-portrait is a fun and convenient way to build self-awareness. Start with a blank canvas and then paint the picture that exemplifies the value you bring to others, how others feel in your presence, and your level of engagement. Now add to this the very special qualities of humility, vulnerability, and effective listening. These are the qualities that enable the very best leaders to surround themselves with individuals from whom they can learn, and all parties benefit by growing together.

Adopting a new state of Mind and Body

This new state of mind does require some enhanced discipline surrounding your daily routine. Sleep, good health, meditation, and regular breaks (every 90 minutes) from your desk will help keep you vibrant. Even your very breath is a tool. Meditation, which relies on both the mind and the body, is a discipline that allows you to change the wiring of your brain. When you meditate for just 10 minutes a day, new super-highways in the brain get built. You’re able to watch your thoughts. You identify your inner worthiness. You begin to realize that if you want to add value, you have to exude it. When someone comes into my office and does not feel valued, I always ask, “Are you being of value?” This requires self-awareness.

I call this sequence of self-actualization “Be-Do-Have” – it’s my mantra for achieving a healthier level of self-awareness and presence in the face of life’s challenges. This concept will be the subject of future writings – but in summary, all that is true, authentic, and real flows from our ground of being. Our ground of being is our core, our deepest self, the still center amidst the spinning world.

The new leadership we advocate is grounded in being. This is the starting point. This is the center that provides the spirit, energy, passion, and open-heartedness that makes for a good life and an organization filled with vitality, passion and purpose.

These ideas which are outwardly simple, but inwardly life-changing form the foundation of our work at the Hollister Institute. The Institute’s mission is dedicated to supporting individuals and organizations to bring their full selves to life, and to work. I invite you to dig deeper with me, and to join us at the Hollister Institute for one of many sessions that will help you achieve the presence you deserve.