At the 2023 American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) National Congress, a CEO started off a session by sharing that he had received feedback that he “does not exhibit executive presence.” This CEO, a male person of color, found it ironic, given that he had been asked to speak to a room full of current and aspiring executives. As of 2019, it was estimated by ACHE that 89% of all hospital CEOs were white (non-Hispanic or Latino), while 60% of the U.S. population is white (non-Hispanic or Latino) . To no surprise, women do not fare much better — as of 2021, women were only 13% of health system CEOs and only 27% of hospital CEOs. 
This begs the question: What is executive presence?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett defines it as a quality that rests on three pillars: Gravitas (an intangible combination of behaviors that inspire confidence, and build trust and credibility); Communication skills; and Appearance. 
What does this mean when you do not look or act like your (most likely) white male predecessor? One possible outcome is that diverse leaders are not considered for positions for which they are qualified. Or, if they do ascend to an executive role, leaders may feel they need to conform to the “traditional” style of leadership and lead in a way that is ultimately inauthentic to themselves and their identity. If leaders are not authentic, it can lead to a loss of trust and credibility — which we have learned are key components of executive presence. This can be compounded when a leader has multiple identities that intersect, potentially leading to double or multiple jeopardy where they may face additional bias . It is no wonder that many diverse leaders are plagued with imposter syndrome.
Perhaps it is time to consider the evolution of executive presence and how it is expressed as the leadership ranks become more representative of our population.
Here are some considerations that might be helpful:
- Be culturally aware: Be aware of and respect the differences in values other cultures may hold. For example, how one culture communicates may differ in the language used, nonverbal cues, level of directness, and even in the use of humor.
- Drop the old model and embrace authenticity: Recognize there is no “right way” to be a leader. Encourage leaders to be true to themselves and minimize comparisons to other leaders in similar positions.
- Foster a sense of belonging: If confidence is key to executive presence, what can be more confidence-boosting than feeling like you belong? Organizations must work to build an environment that is inclusive and values diversity.
- Better define leadership characteristics: Consider using leadership characteristics that are well understood (e.g., integrity, resilience, or self-awareness) over descriptions like “gravitas” that are ill-defined and more likely to be influenced by implicit bias.
- Focus on metrics: Look to clear-cut performance metrics that are objective and speak to the influence and impact of the leader.
Through the course of our work with organizations and their leaders, my colleagues and I have seen executive presence, or the perceived lack of it, be used as a barrier. However, we have also observed clients who were intentional about the need for more diverse leadership and the acknowledgement that it may look different than the leadership they have experienced in the past. Evolving the definition of executive presence will require a shift in leadership culture that forefronts inclusivity and a sense of belonging to broaden the view of how a successful leader looks, acts, and sounds. As the leadership ranks become more diverse, I hope to see more candid discussions about executive presence that expand our thinking of what it means.