Why do we think fit people have greater leadership potential?
Why do we follow the exercise, diet, meditation or sleeping routines of renowned leaders?
Why does being “emotional” undermine our leadership presence?
Why is clear communication a predictor of leadership?
I recently trained a group of women leaders in executive presence (EP). The purpose was to identify the EP-related behaviours that would help them keep advancing in their careers.
At the beginning of the session, they each described the aspects of their own presence they thought had a positive impact on their careers.
For one of them, self-control was key in presenting herself as a leader. She said self-control helped her gauge her counterparty’s reaction, not take things personally, and focus on her objective despite distractions.
She was right. Self-control is always found in good leaders. And as it happens with other aspects of leadership, possessing it is not enough; you also need to make it visible to others.
You allow those around you to perceive your self-control by showing it in the three dimensions of your executive presence:
- What you do, how you behave and react–your gravitas
- What you say and how you say it–your communication
- How you present yourself visually to others–your appearance
One of the components of gravitas is the ability to remain calm under pressure. However, under pressure, when all choices seem unpleasant, intense emotions can cloud our thinking.
Leadership expert Dr. Charles C. Manz, author of Emotional Discipline–The Power to Choose How You Feel, describes emotional discipline as the practice of being responsible for our feelings, instead of becoming victims of them.
Only with discipline do leaders achieve the balance between emotion and reason. They need to make the right choice even when none of the options seems appealing.
The stereotype of women’s hyper-emotionality undermines the perception that women can keep their emotions in check. The reason is that salient emotional aspects are easily generalised by our perceivers. Thus, when a woman, for example, gets too anxious about an upcoming high-stakes meeting, or loses her cool during a discussion, others will think the stereotype is true and applies to her.
And of course, this perception of emotional volatility as opposed to discipline trickles down to other negative beliefs about your executive presence.
If your perceivers believe you can’t keep calm under pressure, they’ll assume you won’t be able to make the right decision when all the options are equally unpleasant. Hence, that you won’t be able to do things that you dislike but are necessary–for example, fire people. Hence, that you won’t be a good leader.
How, then, can you counter that impression? You need to provide your perceivers with overwhelming evidence that such a stereotype or generalised perception is wrong.
Your communication style reveals your emotional discipline and self-control. If you’re a clear communicator, you value relevance, accuracy, and specificity over aesthetics. Because you put the listener at the center, you don’t try to show how much you know but say what the listener needs to hear.
You don’t go through a never-ending list of topics, facts and figures, regardless of your audience, because that’s what you need to say. On the contrary, you adapt your message to your listener, gauging their reaction and checking with them often to make sure they’re with you.
You don’t hide behind fancy words that make you sound smart; you use the type of language that’s relevant to your audience.
You don’t expect your listeners to make the effort of getting your message; you help them understand you by tailoring your message specifically to them.
We see evidence of self-control in someone’s fitness and healthy appearance because we associate those with willpower and emotional discipline. In our mind, if you’re a healthy, fit person, you’re strong enough to follow a diet and exercise–when it’s so tempting to load on high-calorie foods and binge-watch your favorite shows.
At the same time, we trust people who seem to be in control of themselves. ‘When the going gets tough,’ we think,‘the tough get going.’ Why? Because the cognitive bias known as ‘halo effect’ makes humans assume that if you can resist the temptation of that extra slice of pizza or that chocolate bar, you’ll be strong enough to endure adversity.
Think of Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck: he wasn’t being humble or unimaginative. He was saving his mental energy for the decisions that mattered. By relying on habit and following his self-imposed rules, he showed he chose to relentlessly focus on the important and dismiss the trivial.
It’s commonplace that women care about fashion and it’s true that most display a greater wardrobe variety than men. This may cast the false impression that they aren’t able to focus on the important because they’re distracted with the trivial–especially appearance.
Executive presence is determined by the impressions one casts, and the fact is that perceivers form these impressions unconsciously and involuntarily–which means we can’t blame them for what they perceive. The moral is that if we want people to see us differently,we must behave differently.
Years ago, one of my clients was the only woman on the board of a sports-specialised advertisement agency. She suspected her co-directors didn’t consider her fit for the role because – yes – she was a woman. She then decided to make of her girly looks her brand. She coordinated her dozens of different designer handbags with dozens of different designer shoes and bright-coloured nail polish.
Unknowingly, she was creating the ‘halo’ of someone who spent too much time thinking about the trivial–that colorful nail polish wouldn’t increase the bottom-line.
Consider that with a minimalistic approach to wardrobe and accessories you may cast the impression that you have the emotional discipline to keep a potential leadership derailer in check and focus on what matters.
Carolina Perez Sanz joined Templar in 2017, bringing with her 20 years of diverse, international experience as a communications consultant. Carolina is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and French. She holds a PhD in Linguistics from the Complutense University of Madrid as well as an MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication from New York University.