What Does “Executive Presence” Mean in 2024?

June 10, 2024

Expecting law firm leaders to demonstrate a strong “executive presence” isn’t new. What’s changing is the definition of executive presence — and the skills you need to demonstrate it.

Traditionally, leaders who exhibited executive presence were those with the hard-to-define quality of “gravitas.” (In practice, this word often was synonymous with “male.”) Solid communication skills as well as looking and dressing the part rounded out the necessary leadership traits.

But as the business environment and cultural norms change, so do expectations around leadership qualities. A recent Harvard Business Review study showed how a refined set of leadership skills are emerging in the wake of the pandemic, social justice movements including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and our divisive political climate. In an era when we’re questioning how privilege intersects with power and access, we also need to examine what we mean by “leadership qualities.”

Here are some key traits of a leader, redefined with a bit of nuance for the current moment:

  • Gravitas is still a key component of executive presence, but a modern version is grounded in humility and openness. Gravitas overlaps with confidence — a kind of self-assurance that compels people listen to your ideas and analysis. In today’s workplace, it also means knowing when to listen instead of talk, and openly acknowledging that good ideas come from all corners of an organization. Leaders with gravitas embrace diversity because having more perspectives leads to more creative solutions. These leaders don’t need to cling to outdated hierarchies, or the privilege inherent in their position, to create buy-in from the people who work for them. They lead from behind.
  • Communication skills remain key, but with an emphasis on technological expertise.With technology essential to our daily workflows, showing ease with technology is crucial to projecting executive presence — and staying relevant. We’ve all cringed during meetings interrupted, or prolonged by, technology glitches. Presenting to clients and running team meetings — in person and virtually — requires being able to expertly use Zoom, Teams, or other online platforms. Leaders with strong skills in this area ensure a smooth experience through trial runs of important meetings to ensure that everything from graphics to presenter hand-offs is on point.
  • Appearance matters, but authenticity is also important. This component is both the least important and the toughest to get right — especially after years of remote work. The good news is that what counts as “professional” has expanded to include a wider range of styles and to account for individual expression. Overall, leaders have more freedom to dress in a style that reflects their roots and values. Whether they are dressing more casually for a virtual meeting or more formally for an in-person meeting or high-profile event, a polished look conveys confidence. As always, however, it seems that the bar is higher for women, who face decisions about hair, makeup, jewelry and the tailoring/silhouette of their clothing that are not relevant for most men. Successful leaders develop an ability to read the room and embrace an authentic, simple style that keeps the focus on their ideas and contributions.