Demystifying “leadership presence”

Mia Blume
4 min readMar 9, 2020


Ah yes, the elusive goal of having “executive” or “leadership” presence. Everyone wants it, most can’t define it. It comes up in performance reviews and reasons why leaders aren’t progressing, but rarely is it helpful feedback or guidance. It’s also one of the most common curriculum requests and topics we receive at Design Dept.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about it, you’ll know that I’ve got some strong feelings about it, not only because executive/leadership presence is not a skill, but also because it’s so full of bias. And in a world where I’d like to see more diverse leaders (at all levels of leadership), if we don’t clarify and challenge the concept, we’re going to lose the battle. So let’s start with clarifying what we mean:

Defining “presence”
If you feel like the phrase is vague, that’s because it is. Most can’t define “leadership presence” because it’s actually a perception that is deeply rooted in organizational and cultural biases. From what I have observed, what triggers that perception is rarely defined well for any leadership team.

When we dig deep into what people mean when they say “he doesn’t have leadership presence”, it’s usually some combination of:

  • Perceived confidence through words
  • Perceived confidence through body language
  • Ability to ask clear, meaningful questions
  • Ability to craft and defend a clear point of view
  • Being able to hold steady and participate effectively in debate
  • Expressed passion
  • Asking questions at the right “level” (this is particularly true for the transition into “executive presence”)

For your organization, it may also include other things. It’s common to describe leaders who speak often and loudly as having “presence.” But, I think we all know by now this is a whole lot of bias. So in exploring what presence means at your organization, you’re going to want to dig in and identify specific behaviors to remove that bias, or at least name it if you can’t avoid it.

What to do if you receive feedback about your “presence”
The most important thing to know is that telling someone they need more presence is fundamentally ineffective feedback. Perceived presence is an outcome, not a behavior or a skill in itself. Therefore if you believe in providing evidence-based or behavior-based feedback (which we teach at Design Dept.), then “presence” isn’t getting to the problem. So, if you receive this feedback, here’s a few tips on how to address it:

  1. Take a beat
    Any immediate reaction driven by emotion doesn’t serve you in this moment. It’s okay to say something like, “Thank you for this feedback. I need additional time to process and come back to you with clarifying questions. Will tomorrow work?” Or even just a few minutes in the room to pause before you continue.
  2. Seek clarity
    Ask for specific behaviors that represent this “lack of presence.” Or, when you are exhibiting “presence” what does it look like to them specifically? What are you saying or doing that creates this perception?
  3. Find examples
    If they can’t provide direct feedback on your behavior, ask for other examples of behavior from leaders in the organization that illustrate what they mean by presence. Kindly remind them you’re trying to understand what the behaviors are that represent the ideal, so you can make the feedback more actionable. (If they still can’t do this, feel free to send them our way for a little coaching ;))
  4. Move forward
    Propose to write new development goal(s) based on these specific behaviors, because they’re actually observable and measurable.

How should you define “presence” for your teams?
First, let’s make it clear what we’re trying to achieve: We’re trying to get to a common set of valued behaviors. And that probably means that we don’t call it “presence” any more.

It may be written as leadership principles, philosophy or commitments. The language matters less than the clarity and actionability of the content. For instance, if you want to value leaders that help the team understand complexity, uncover new ideas, and generally be perceived as a valuable thought partner, you might define a leadership principle like “Lead with curiosity.” Then you would define specific examples of this mindset and behavior, like:

  • They ask questions that help uncover new information
  • They ask questions that help create new perspectives
  • The ask questions, even when it feels hard

If you find yourself getting caught up in “building presence” try breaking it down into these areas and getting specific feedback on your ability in each area. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to help redefine this for everyone. If you want to create space for different types of leaders to be present, you have to remove vague definitions, remove biased understandings, and create more accessible learning paths.

Mia Blume is the CEO of Design Dept., an organization that offers leadership development for designers, by designers.



Mia Blume

Design Leadership Coach + CEO at Design Dept. Founder of Within. Previous leader at Pinterest, Square and IDEO.