In times of crisis, people gravitate toward leaders who exude executive presence — those who command authority, make bold decisions, speak candidly, and drive toward solutions, even when the path feels difficult and frightening. These leaders may feel deep fear and uncertainty, but they know how to navigate stormy waters.
For the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been that leader. He’s decisive, self-assured, adept at communicating across a broad audience, and immensely credible. As a leader in the business realm, you can learn important lessons from how he navigates an incredibly complex situation.
Let’s reflect back on the past several months to analyze how Fauci captured the nation’s trust, so you can work to cultivate the same executive presence qualities within yourself. The four key qualities of executive presence:
- Radiate gravitas
- Acts with authority
- Establishes credibility
- Communicates powerfully
Leaders who radiate gravitas have implicit trust in themselves. They remain confident, unafraid to challenge others and able to do so with grace and composure. During a crisis, the calm, steady presence of a leader who radiates gravitas gives people the sense that everything will be okay.
Though Fauci has never lived through a pandemic of this breadth, he radiates gravitas in his calm, straightforward demeanor and self-assured tone. He trusts himself completely, and it shows in his ability to be blunt, candid, and direct. He boldly corrects other leaders when need be, yet does so with such a straightforward style that he doesn’t come across as accusatory.
He has the attitude that says, "People know I’m the expert here. I don’t need to lose my cool to get them to listen." And he had the 80% approval rating to prove it as of April.
Fauci has no qualms about stepping up to correct President Donald Trump at press conferences — when Trump said a vaccine would be available “soon,” Fauci matter-of-factly stated that the timeframe is more like a year to 18 months.
“The virus determines the timeline, not us,” he has famously said.
Acts with authority
Having clear principles positions a leader to speak and act authoritatively, saying what people need to hear rather than what they want to hear, which is vital to navigating a crisis.
“Tell them the truth that is based on evidence, because even though politicians, in the administration or in the Congress, may not be happy with what you tell them, they will respect you,” Fauci said in a 2015 interview with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN, speaking to his hypothetical successor. “That’s how you can be successful in getting good science to drive policy.
Fauci was no stranger to taking bold action before the pandemic. In 1988, when confronted with AIDS activists demanding the right to experimental treatments, he asked them to join him for a face-to-face meeting on expanding access to drugs used in clinical trials, The New York Times reported. Fauci's decisive action led to a focus on expanding access to promising treatments for other diseases, as well. In addition, Fauci fondly remembers Larry Kramer, one of his biggest critics, in an essay he wrote after Kramer's recent passing.
It might seem obvious at first glance why Fauci has so much credibility: He's a longstanding key adviser to the White House on health matters, and he’s been awarded 38 honorary doctorates.
But part of building credibility is proving that you’re trustworthy and available to those who need you -- another quality that Fauci has in spades.
“Dr. Fauci has been so kind and helpful to me,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March. “I call him late at night, I call him in the middle of the night; he's really been a friend to me personally and the state of New York.”
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, a longtime friend of Dr. Fauci, says the doctor took time to check on him and his family every day when they had the coronavirus.
Because people know that Fauci has deep compassion for others, they trust his judgment. When leaders show they’re motivated by empathy for others, it builds credibility just as much as an honorary degree — perhaps more.
Fauci is a master of communicating complex scientific information to the public. His concise, direct style provides the vital information that helps keep Americans safe and deepens their trust in him. As McKinsey points out, a crisis inhibits people’s ability to absorb new information. That means brevity and clarity are key.
“My motto for that is precision of thought – which means know what you are talking about and know what message you need to deliver; and economy of expression – which means say it as briefly and succinctly as you possibly can,” Fauci says.
Furthermore, while some leaders have downplayed the threat of the virus to avoid triggering panic, Fauci prioritizes transparency. He knows that reflecting the situation honestly will inspire a greater sense of calm. People want a leader who understands the magnitude of the situation. False hope or promises only make people more afraid, when common sense or investigative journalism tells them those things aren’t true.
At the same time, Fauci has mastered the art of tact. He avoids saying, “you’re wrong,” or letting any annoyance or frustration show. During the current wave of protests, he has warned that people could be at greater risk of catching the virus, but without condemning their actions. Instead, he focuses on making the point he wants to make — a lesson we can all benefit from.
If you work to cultivate these four elements of executive presence that Fauci models, it will help you to flourish as a leader. These qualities will help leaders in every field to inspire the same trust from their people that Fauci has inspired from the American public — allowing them to drive toward solutions in any situation.
Joel Garfinkle is an executive leadership coach who recently worked with a chief information officer who needed to improve the same four qualities of executive presence mentioned above. This leader quickly learned to radiate gravitas, command authority, and make bold decisions. Garfinkle also provides corporate training and webinars on executive presence. He has written seven books, including "Executive Presence." Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter – a one-minute read full of best practice articles, famous leaders profiles and inspiring videos. You can also view 75 of Joel’s two-minute motivational videos on his YouTube channel.
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