Executive Presence: The Elusive “X Factor” in Leadership

A significant body of management research has demonstrated that some of the highest risk to business can be attributed to the failure to find the right leaders with the right stuff and put them in the right roles. Part of hiring the right CEO is finding someone with that leadership “X Factor,” a quality that is hard to define, but essential to success. Here’s how you can develop that elusive variable.

May 7 2014 by Suzanne Bates and David Casullo


Research conducted by Bates of management, psychology, leadership, communication and social action theory concludes that this X Factor is “executive presence.” It can be defined in three dimensions—character, substance and style. We now know that these are the qualities of leadership that enable executives to inspire commitment, mobilize above-and-beyond effort, and elevate organizational performance. Using this model, we have built a research-based, scientifically validated assessment tool for measuring executive presence and influence—the Executive Presence Index, which defines 15 facets of behavior making up executive presence.

How does the model apply to you? There are inflection points or triggers that prompt leaders and organizations to consider executive presence and influence. Typically, these happen when a leader moves into a new role,  and faces a new or greater, more daunting challenge.

This is represented by the Challenge-Development Curve, highlighting the point at which executives might anticipate feeling stuck and in search of solutions.

Most leaders have a strong bias to what we can call the “hard factors” of performance—practical skills such as formulating a strategy, creating operational efficiencies, finding ways to cut costs, and so on. However, the “soft factors” of performance that may be represented in the Executive Presence model are grounded in less obvious dynamics of thought, feeling and action.

While most executives recognize intuitively that these soft factors are important, they are uncertain how to measure their own capabilities, let alone create a path for their own development. As these factors are the difference-makers, we know that when leaders pay attention to the aspects of presence and influence and take action on them, they are far more likely to adapt successfully as the level of challenge increases.

In the process model (below), you will see that increasing levels of challenge stimulate a leader’s development—up to a key inflection point. When we reach point ‘b’, we’ve reached a fork in the road. With the right kind of intervention—expert advice, stakeholder feedback, and mentoring, for example—’adaptive change’ will result. Development continues, and the leader emerges as more capable than ever in spite of—or even because of—that increased level of challenge.

Without that intervention, however, that inflection point results in regression in the face of the higher level of challenge. A leader may experience a sense of being frustrated, overwhelmed, and depleted. Does this sound familiar? Performance suffers, and a developmental opportunity has been missed.

Every leader can strengthen facets of executive presence through coaching, mentoring, action learning, team development and leadership programs. It is possible to find the right role for yourself, especially when you have a way to define and measure the factors of executive presence that will accelerate your success in the context of your business. Your ability to mobilize widespread and purposeful action will drive change, elevate engagement, and transform your company.

Suzanne Bates is CEO and founder of Bates, a global coaching and consulting firm. Suzanne is the author of Speak Like a CEO, Motivate Like a CEO, and Discover Your CEO Brand (McGraw Hill) and writes a leadership column, Thoughts for Tuesday (www.bates-communications.com).

David Casullo is president of Bates and author of Leading the High-Energy Culture (McGraw Hill).