The Body Language of Leadership

Leaders use many different strategies to motivate their ranks.  Some try to be everybody’s friend, while others try to be as intimidating as possible.   Which strategy is best depends on circumstances and the personality of the leader, but most studies identify two key dimensions to leadership that can be reinforced by body language:  likeability and authority.  Put simply, people are most easily motivated by those they either like or believe to be in a position of authority.   We can see both of these dimensions at work in our own lives.  We all know people we want to follow because of their personal charm, and we all know people we want to follow because it’s clear that they know what they’re doing.  Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?   Just adopt the body language of somebody who is both likeable and authoritative and you’ll be fine. 

Well, there’s a problem.  It turns out that the body language that makes you be perceived as more likeable tends to reduce perceptions of your authority, while the body language that causes you to be perceived as authoritative tends to reduce your impression of likeability.   If you look at these dimensions of leadership as you encounter them in your ever y day life, you’ll see what I mean.  If a police officer pulls you over for speeding, you’ll obey, but you probably won’t be very happy about it, nor will you very likely have many ‘good feelings’ about the cop who is pulling you over.  From a ‘body language’ perspective the cop displays all the non-verbal signs of his authority, from the uniform, to the badge, to the gun, the cruiser.  Everything about him is a visual reminder that this is a person who has the power to make your life very uncomfortable if you don’t comply.   However, all of these symbols are reminders that the cop’s authority comes from his ability to exercise force, and these things make it more difficult to like him or relate to him interpersonally.   If you start taking away these symbols, starting with his uniform, then his gun, then his badge, he becomes more approachable and likeable, but at an obvious sacrifice to his authority. 

The key to the body language of leadership is striking the right balance between these two dimensions.  If you lead strictly through authority, people may be willing to follow you in the short run, but over the long term may build up resentment and resistance to your leadership.  Conversely, if you lead strictly through personal charm, people may be willing to follow you when not much is demanded of them, but less willing when you ask them to do something that is particularly challenging or risky.   In other words, whatever your leadership style, whichever dimension you most strongly exhibit, experts recommend leavening it somewhat with elements from the other dimension.  If you come across as particularly authoritative, it’s a good idea to make sure you adopt some of the body language that makes you appear likeable so that your authority isn’t perceived as being too harsh.  If your leadership style depends most on being a likeable ‘buddy’ type, it’s a good idea to work on body language that demonstrates your authority and right to lead for those crisis situations where people need a stronger hand guiding them.

There are many non-verbal indicators of power and authority.  The most obvious of these are uniforms.  It is important to note that uniforms are worn in many walks of life besides the military and law enforcement.  The professor’s sport coat, or the doctors white gown can also be a uniform, as can be the executives ‘power suit.’   From a strictly ‘body language’ perspective, larger people tend to be perceived as more authoritative.  Less eye contact, more deliberate movements, and fewer displays of emotion are also associated with authority and power.

Likeability and warmth are generally communicated through open body language.  In addition, people are judged to me more likeable if they are more animated and display greater emotion. 

In addition to striking the right balance between these two dimensions, it is crucial that the leader know which kind of body language to emphasize at which times.  During times of stress and uncertainty, leaders should emphasize the non-verbal cues that convey strength and stability.  At times when other people’s input is required, leaders should emphasize the non-verbal cues that convey warmth and likeability, so that people feel their ideas are valued.

There is no single, correct mix of authoritative vs. likeable body language when it comes to leadership.   The right mix depends upon the demands of the situation and your own assessment of your particular style.  The important thing is to be aware of the fact that you adapt your style of leadership, you must also adapt your body language to go along with it.

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