How to be perceived as a leader

Use these tips to increase your personal presence.
By Dawn Wotapka

Early in her career, Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner, CPA/CITP, CGMA, realized something was missing from her professional toolset: presence. She was present in the physical sense, mind you, but she didn't show up to meetings exuding confidence.

"I could see it in other people, and I felt like I didn't have it," recalled Kittner, now head of finance at the International Legal Technology Association in Chicago. "People connect to it, so I've made a conscious effort to observe it: what works, what comes off as abrasive, and what comes off as calm assurance." 

What Kittner spotted can be referred to as external, leadership, or situational presence. In 2010, a study gave it yet another name — trait affective presence. Researchers Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein described it as how, in group dynamics, some people are able to elicit positive emotions from others, allowing them to have more influence over them.

"Presence is difficult to define, but easy to recognize," said Dianna Booher, author of Creating Personal Presence and founder and CEO of Booher Research Institute, a communication consulting firm located in Colleyville, Texas. "People with presence carry themselves in a way that turns heads. When they talk, people listen. When they ask, people answer. When they lead, people follow."

Such skills have been identified in top leaders and bosses. "In order to move up in your career, a strong technical skill set is not enough," said Henna Pryor, a recruiting director and career strategist with Kforce, a Philadelphia professional staffing and solutions firm specializing in technology, finance, and accounting services.

"Business leaders are looking for candidates who bring a business presence to the table," she said. "This includes confidence, a unique perspective, and the ability to communicate with others in a way [that] makes people stop what they are doing and take a moment to engage and listen to what they have to say."

While these abilities aren't always innate, "anyone can learn the skills, habits, and traits to master the small and significant things that work together to convey presence," Booher said.

Here's how to get started:

Bolster your emotional intelligence. Presence builds on emotional intelligence, the ability to control the impact that emotions have on us and those around us. It involves interpreting how others perceive situations and considering how others perceive you as you deftly juggle stress management, decision-making, and self-expression.

Along with mastering emotions, use your voice and language to demonstrate competence as you deliver clear and memorable messages, Booher said. "Think strategically, organize ideas coherently, and convey to others genuine interest, integrity, respect, and reliability," she suggested.

Focus on body language. Body language also plays a key role in how you're perceived. "There must be nonverbal, trust-building cues," Kittner advised. "It's definitely an exercise in making sure you're fully focused and possess internal presence to demonstrate full external presence."

Her best body language tips include making strong eye contact with speakers and listeners and leaning forward to indicate interest.

Overall, she said, you need to be engaged and interested. Avoid multitasking during meetings or presentations because "it completely takes you out of the full mind presence that is essential for physical presence," Kittner said.

Show drive. Take on more responsibilities at work and within the profession to increase your prominence as a go-to authority. Show initiative by speaking up at meetings, Pryor said. "Ask if you can jump on to extra projects or make improvements or suggestions to existing ones," she said. "Your superiors will remember this when they think about which performers stood out."

Increase your networking efforts. Networking events are ideal opportunities to improve confidence while boosting presence, Pryor said. "The more you can put your name out there and make yourself known in the profession, the more weight your name will hold as you continue through your career," she said.

Be an individual. Understand that showing presence doesn't mean giving up who you are, Kittner said. "Presence is personal; it doesn't have to be the same, one-size-fits-all," she said. "You should figure out what type of presence works for you and will endear people to your leadership style."

Keep going. Know that mastering the art of presence won't likely happen overnight and that, as you try to increase your visibility, you may make mistakes. Just keep going, Pryor advised.

"Those who leave a mark on this world are often those who tried something difficult, failed, and dusted themselves off to try again," she said. "If you want to be remembered, you have to try things that your peers are afraid to try, even if it means falling down a few times in the process."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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