I came of age in an anti-authoritarian time when executive gravitas rang false to many of us. The suits and ties, the gloves and girdles of the ‘50s were replaced by the sandals and long hair of the hippies. One of our catchphrases was, “If it feels good, do it.” The phrase captured a mindset that being true to yourself and living the good life meant acting on your impulses and sharing everything — thoughts, feelings, desires, and choices.

The current emphasis on “authenticity” shows just how much this stance has swung back into favor. Both in our personal and professional lives, some coaches are advising us, as people and as leaders, to be open and true to our feelings and preferences.

There are many situations in which this is great guidance. Dropping your guard, kicking over the traces, and acting the way you want can be liberating and fun.

But being a senior executive in the public eye is not one of those situations.

Opting for executive gravitas

By now we’re all familiar with the antics of Elon Musk. But you don’t have to be nearly that high profile to suffer the consequences of speaking off the cuff. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about CEOs who lost their jobs because they spoke in a public forum without thinking carefully. It’s not that they went on a racist rant. They shared their fears about where their company was going, or they insensitively minimized a tragedy. They overestimated their ability to speak extemporaneously and didn’t prepare or follow a script.

In every case, the CEOs may have been speaking “authentically.” They may have indeed been worried about their company’s trajectory. They may have truly felt that the tragedy was no big deal. But by not choosing their words carefully, they damaged both their companies and their own careers.

One of the challenges business leaders face as they are promoted into more senior roles is the increasing scrutiny of every word they say — even their non-verbal behaviors. As officers of the company, they are obligated to be constantly mindful of their role as stewards and representatives, not just individuals with their own opinions. When I coach high-potential leaders for their next promotion, this self-discipline and executive presence is often a focus of our coaching.

Developing executive presence isn’t the opposite of honesty

This is not to say that a leader should be a phony. Audiences can often tell when a leader is faking it. Part of being a compelling leader is making a personal connection with your team members and your public.  But effective senior leadership does require leaders to edit themselves and to craft their messages with careful thought about the impact.

If this tension between being genuine and being careful sounds difficult, it is. It requires practice, an understanding of nuance, and self-restraint. If you’d like to know more about how to develop these abilities in yourself and others, contact us at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com.

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