If you can think back to when you were 14 years old, you’ll probably recall many moments of feeling unsure of yourself.

So one night last week, I wasn’t too surprised when my son, Tim, was feeling a little down on himself.  We ended up getting into an intense conversation about all of this.  At one point, he said, “I just don’t think I’m any good at anything.”

“Well,” I said, “It’s not unusual for people to focus on what they’re not so good at.”  I went on to tell him about something that’s been going on at work lately: We had 100 leaders participate in the first-ever scientific assessment of executive presence—the Bates Executive Presence Index, or ExPI.

I’ve had conversations with a few dozen of the people who participated in our pilot study.  “And guess what?”  I told Tim.  “Almost all of them focus immediately on what they aren’t so good at.  And these are really smart, hard-working people, so you’re in good company there!”

Then I did something with him that we do when we provide feedback on this assessment.  I asked him to focus first on what he sees as his strengths.

Tim considered that for a bit.  “I’m a good reader and writer,” he said.  He went on to mention running and playing musical instruments, but then he was stumped.

“Those are definitely strengths,” I told him.  “But one thing I noticed is that everything you said is a skill.  So I’m wondering... What do you think your strengths are as a person?”

“You mean, like, my character?” he said.

“Exactly!  When we have people take this assessment of executive presence, we have them compare their self-ratings versus others’ ratings in three dimensions—and one of the most interesting in character.” 

I told him about the five facets of character, describing them in terms that a teenager would understand.  “There’s Authenticity—how genuine you are as a person.  Then Integrity—whether others can count on you to do the right thing.  Concern is the term we used to capture how caring of others you are.  Then Restraint is how much you think you before you act—it’s about being a little cautious.  Lastly, there’s humility, which is not only about being someone who doesn’t brag or boast—it really means someone who is open to learning.”

When we talked about these five facets of character, Tim was kind of amazed to realize that almost all of them felt like strengths—and things that made him different, in a good way, from a lot of kids in his grade.

“However,” I told him, “You’re a pretty quiet guy, so I think it’s all fair to say that probably many kids in your grade don’t know that you have these strengths.  For example, you’re an authentic guy, but you don’t share too much of yourself with others—so others maybe haven’t seen them in you just yet. “

There was one last point I wanted to make.  “But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have these strengths.  They’re real… and they can be very powerful for you!”  Tim found this idea pretty exciting.

As a leader, you’ve come a long way since you were 14 years old.  Throughout your career, you’ve developed some real strengths in the other two dimensions of executive presence.  With Substance, most leaders have developed some hard-earned Practical Wisdom and Confidence, for example.  With Style, many leaders show strengths such as Assertiveness and Intentionality. 

Still, like my son, you might be overlooking the fact that the third and most subtle area of executive presence—the dimension of Character—has incredible power—if you can only tap it.  As I described to Tim, your great character qualities may be there… but you may take them for granted… and you may need to find a way to amplify them and make sure that others are seeing and experiencing that character.  It often requires hard work and some expert assistance.

When others do perceive the strength of your Authenticity, Integrity, Concern, Restraint, and Humility, your ability to influence others in any circumstance increases exponentially.

It all begins with realizing that you have strengths that lie in who you are—not just what you can do.

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