I was once asked to coach a senior-level manager from a technology firm in Silicon Valley. I learned that this man’s work was of the highest calibre and that his advancement had (up to this point) been fast-tracked. But now his career was stalled.
When I asked why this high performing manager needed coaching, here’s what I was told: “He doesn’t look like a leader.”
Looking like a leader, being perceived as a leader when you interact with customers, peers, or executives is the essence of leadership presence. Since it is totally dependent on the impression you make on others, enhancing leadership presence requires a deep understanding of the impact of your appearance, your body language, your emotional state, and how well you to communicate your key messages.
If you want to power up your leadership presence, here are 10 questions to consider:
1) Are you a clear communicator?
Clear communication isn’t always easy, but it is an essential part of leadership presence. A simple outline I encourage clients to follow is the “head – heart – hands” model. Organizing your messages in this way helps to clarify your “end game,” your desired results.
Head – What do you want your audience to know? (What facts/data/examples do they need to hear for you to get your main points across?)
Heart – What do you want your audience to feel? (What specific emotional reaction are you after? Do you want them to feel appreciated/enthused/reassured?)
Hands – What do you want your audience to do? (What action step do you want them to take? Do you want them to buy your product/try the new software/give you suggestions?) And, BTW, whatever you want your audience to do, remember to ask for it in your closing comments.
2) Are you a concise communicator?
Attention spans are so short today that you have to express your point of view in a way that’s both compelling and brief. Simplicity isn’t just a “nice to have” communication skill. It’s a necessity. If you ramble or beat around the bush, any hope of holding people’s attention is lost. A good tip is to ask yourself: “In 10 words or less, what is my key message?” If you can’t state it succinctly to yourself, you are not ready to communicate it to others.
3) Do you speak with conviction?
Sometimes the smallest word choice can have a big impact. Leaders who speak with conviction use words that carry a sense of ownership and self-reliance. They say “I won’t” (which indicates they have decided not to do something) rather than “I can’t” (which implies they don’t have the skills or talents for the task). They say “I choose to,” not “I have to.”
Just as important as it is to use self-assured phrases, it is equally important to eliminate qualifiers, fillers, and minimizers. People will judge you as lacking conviction if you use qualifiers such as: “To the best of my knowledge . . . “ “I could be wrong . . . “ “If I recall correctly . . . “ As far as I know . . . ””This may not be a good idea but . . . ” Fillers like “um” and “uh” make you seem unprepared and uncertain. (BTW: Many fillers can be eliminated if you just pause between thoughts.) And minimize your use of minimizers – eliminating words like: “Maybe, “sort of,” “kind of,” “somewhat” – if you want to sound assured.
4) Do you tell stories?
Good stories are more powerful than plain facts. This is not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. Facts are neutral. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. Facts aren’t influential until they mean something to someone. Stories give facts meaning.
Here is another difference – and it explains why so many effective leaders are great storytellers: Trying to influence people through scientific analysis is a “push” strategy. It requires the speaker to convince the listener through cold, factual evidence. Storytelling is a “pull” strategy, in which the listener is invited to join the experience as a participant and to imagine acting on the mental stage the storyteller creates. Stories resonate with people in ways that encourages open-mindedness – and make them less resistant to experimentation and change.
5) Does your body language project presence?
From a body language perspective, leadership presence is comprised of two sets of nonverbal signals. The first set of signals conveys status, power, and authority. You display those through your posture — standing or sitting tall with your feet hip distance apart, head straight and shoulders back, and by expansive hand gestures, typically around waist level. The second set of nonverbal signals conveys empathy, likeability, and warmth. These include smiles, positive eye contact, open palm gestures, and (most of all) giving people your undivided attention.
When you project both power cues and empathetic body language, you have a winning combination for being perceived as confident, influential and caring.
Leadership presence is diminished, however, whenever you assume a submissive posture in which your shoulders are rounded, your chest is concave and your head is tilted down. Holding your body in a condensed position not only makes you look vulnerable and powerless, it makes you feel that way too.
6) Do you dress for leadership success?
My friend Joyce is a successful entrepreneur. One of the secrets of her success is the way she dresses. Even when travelling on vacation, Joyce is in a business suit and heels. Her motto is: “Wear great clothes. You never know whom you’ll meet!”
Dressing for leadership success doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear a suit when you travel — or even when you go to work, since many workplaces encourage more casual attire – but it does mean that whatever you wear should reinforce people’s perception of you as a polished and competent professional.
7) Do you tailor your content for different audiences?
You can’t be at your influential best as a communicator unless you know your audience: the challenges they are facing, what they want and need to know, how they feel about you, and what they already know about your topic. But different audiences have different challenges, needs, emotions, and knowledge, so your task is to find ways to be relevant to whomever you are speaking.
One CEO told me, “My greatest leadership skill is an ability to tailor and craft messages that resonate whether I’m meeting with truck drivers in the backroom or executives in the boardroom.”
8) Do you stay poised and positive under pressure?
Self-assured optimism under pressure is an impressive display of leadership presence. Like the common cold, emotions are literally contagious. During any high-pressure situation, your team will be on alert – constantly looking to you for emotional cues. So take a deep breath and instead of wondering how you are going to get through this, ask yourself “How can I take charge of the situation and use it to achieve positive results?”
9) Do you have a plan for self-promotion?
I know, I know – you don’t like to “blow your own horn.” But if you believe that working hard, keeping quiet, and waiting for your talents to be discovered is the answer, take a tip from a savvy leader I interviewed: “If you want to be evaluated as having leadership presence, then being a legend in your own mind is not enough.” Instead, you need to make sure that executives in your company are aware of your work and accomplishments (and you need to do so in a way that is not seen as boasting, but as informative and helpful), you need to promote yourself by volunteering for projects, giving speeches, writing blogs, and taking an active part in professional organizations. You need to network within and external to your industry, and you need to find mentors and sponsors who will guide and help promote you.”
10) Are you inspirational?
“The best leader I ever worked for combined a deep understanding of organizational dynamics with an exceptional talent for dealing with people. At meetings he would pose questions that left us curious, energized, engaged, and highly motivated. We couldn’t do enough for him. Sometimes I wondered if we were all hypnotized. I’ve never seen people work so hard for someone and still want to do more.”
This is typical of the responses I get when I ask people to describe their most inspirational leader. The power to inspire others is a by-product of your ability to connect emotionally with your objectives and to make people feel like valued, collaborative, and trusted partners in achieving those goals. Inspiration is not only something we all want from our leaders; it’s at the heart of leadership presence.
Leadership presence may be intangible, but it’s far from mysterious. At its core is a set of practical skills that you can learn, employ, and improve. Doing so will not only make you look like a leader, it will help you become an even better one – and help position you as a viable candidate for that next big promotion!
Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.
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