Can Ugly People Have Presence?

Do Brad Pitt-caliber looks equal presence? There's more to the story. (Image via Wikipedia.)

That’s the question I was asked recently during an interview on the Cranky Middle Manager show.

The host, Wayne Turmel, wasn’t just trying to be cheeky, he was saying what many people think: leadership presence comes from innate qualities.

Of course, as someone who has worked with all types of people to develop a stronger presence, I patently disagree.

But he did get me thinking.

While leadership presence has become an undisputed core competency in companies—a friend at a global recruiting powerhouse recently shared that it’s #2 on their evaluation scorecard for candidates—there’s still much confusion about what it is and how to get it.

And there’s a little voice inside many of us listing reasons why we’re at a disadvantage to possess such a powerful and inspiring quality.

We’re not attractive enough. Or, more rarely, so good looking that we’re not taken seriously.

We’re too young. Or too old.

We’re female, a minority, or from another culture.

We’re too short, or overweight, or an introvert.

See where this leads? If you take out all of the so-called innate disqualifiers to having an engaging presence, you’re only left with a tall 43.5 year old white guy with average weight and decent good looks. Which isn’t most of us.

Yes, there is scads of research out there about how certain groups are perceived with a negative bias. For a hilarious riff on the advantages of attractiveness (and who on earth gets to be the omnipotent judge), check out this clip from The Daily Show with John Stewart.

But when it comes to who inspires and influences us, the research doesn’t tidily add up.

Let’s take the attractiveness point. Study after study has shown that people deemed more attractive are perceived more favorably—especially when it comes to first impressions or job interviews. (If you’re into attractiveness studies, this Hofstra paper on attractiveness bias in hiring is a good overview.)

However, that doesn’t equate to influence, which is about impressions made over time. And we’ve all experienced how our perceptions of someone change as we get to know them.

Not to be unkind, and with risk of speaking as one of those omnipotent judges — but in general, Fortune 500 CEOs aren’t going to show up on America’s Top Model any time soon. Nor are political leaders. (Paul Begala famously called Washington the “Hollywood for ugly people.”) If you lined up our business and civic leaders, in terms of looks they resemble the majority of society: average. People aren’t inspired by attractiveness. We’re inspired by a complex mix of interpersonal traits and authentic connection. We’re influenced by other people’s passion, fortitude, empathy, and humanity. We’re drawn in by their listening ability, trustworthiness, confidence, and care for a greater good. For your own example, write down five people who’ve influenced your life. Any super attractive people on the list? Those with magnetic charisma? Perfect physiques?

I’ve had people in my life fitting every shape, color and type who’ve demonstrated compelling attractor energy, and have inspired me to be and do more. Bet you have too.

There’s no doubt that your presence is directly related to success. When we try to dismiss it as a biological factor, we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice. It’s a way of throwing up our hands and not trying. One more for the too hard pile.

Presence is the ability to connect with and inspire others.

It’s not about towering over others in the room, or having the perfect look. It doesn’t require some inborn preternatural charisma or uncanny photographic ability.

Presence is an equal opportunity trait.

It’s developed—and shared—from the inside out. And not the other way around.

If you want a stronger presence, you simply have to work on it. And the good news is, you can.

Share your comments here or @kristihedges. More on how to work on your own presence in this CNBC article.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. This post also appears on Forbes.com.

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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