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4 Questions That Can Help You Build Your Leadership Presence

4 Questions That Can Help You Build Your Leadership Presence

Many high-potential women can relate to a fuzzy concept in their performance reviews: leadership presence. They’re told that a lack of it is holding them back from being promoted to senior positions. But they’re rarely told what they can do to build it.

In her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Harvard psychology professor Amy Cuddy defines leadership presence as the ability to showcase both warmth and competence. However, as women rise up the corporate ladder, many of them face the “double bind” of competence and likability. When they are nice, they are seen as not competent enough. When they are competent, they are no longer liked. Is it any surprise, then, that women struggle with leadership presence?

[Related: “Please” and “Thank You” Are Getting in the Way of Your Leadership]

I’ve spent many years doing research on women’s confidence in the workplace, and I’ve found that for women to break through interpersonal barriers and establish themselves as leaders, they need to connect to their authentic expression.

This is easier said than done. Most women have spent a lifetime running away from themselves, consciously or unconsciously. By the time they reach a stage in life and in their careers when they seek meaning in their work and are eager to make a difference through it, they realize they are living someone else’s dreams.

Luckily, it doesn’t take a break from life to reconnect with who they are and what they stand for. Through my research, I’ve created a simple framework that can help women express themselves with as their most authentic selves. Aptly, it can be encapsulated in an acronym that spells LIFE.

Are you in control of your LIVED experience?

You take charge of your lived experience by being aware of and able to manage your emotions. Not all of us are able to do so well – many of us numb our emotions and put on an exterior of strength, especially in workplaces that expect us to leave half of ourselves at the door.

Many others are overwhelmed by emotions and react in ways that do not serve them or others well. A great way of taking charge of your inner world is by feeling the emotion in your body – and then creating distance from it by naming it in your mind. This not only makes you aware of the emotion, but also creates the space you need to respond with reason, clarity, and compassion.

[Related: Science Proves Demonstrating Kindness in the Workplace is Your Competitive Advantage]

What are the IDEALS you stand for?

Our ideals are based on our values and become our vision, our guiding light. Even though women are deeply rooted in their values and vision, they are rarely seen as visionaries in the workplace.

Sally Helgesen, leadership expert and author of How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, says that for women to be seen as visionaries, they need to stop being the perfect “doers” and learn to trust their intuition.

One way of doing so is to read about the lives of leaders who inspire you and see connections between their values and your own in order to craft your leadership vision.

How do you want others to FEEL around you?

This simple question shifts the focus from self to other, from ego to eco. Instead of thinking about being likable, it gets you thinking about what you can do to make others feel empowered, understood, safe, or worthy – whichever values speak to your heart.

Increasingly, these qualities of the heart are being recognized as central to effective leadership, and women have a natural advantage given our feminine strengths. Being true to them will not only make you a more effective leader - it will also help you be less affected by criticism, given that criticism is par for the course when you step into anything substantive.

What is the EXPERTISE you bring?

We often think of expertise as the skills and competence that allow us to do our jobs well. This may work for those who climb the corporate ladder in a structured fashion. However, the career trajectory of most women is a far more spiraling one, and unless we own the expertise gained along the way, we will feel incompetent and avoid opportunities that hold the promise for growth.

It's important to think not only of your skills on the job, but also those outside of it: in your home, through life’s challenges, and from the insights gained by reading about the future trends in your industry. You need to distill these into a coherent story of your expertise.

Finding the right temperature of competence and likability may be an elusive pursuit. But grounding ourselves in the core of our being allows us to adapt to people and situations instead of being blown over by their expectations for us.

And that is true leadership presence.

[Related: Insights from Personal Struggle: Becoming a Stronger You]


Homaira Kabir is a wellbeing and leadership coach who helps high-achieving women develop authentic confidence and leadership presence. She is also a self-worth researcher and widely published writer. You can read more of her articles and take her confidence quiz here.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.