Importance of the Right Body Language for Leaders

Think of your favorite public personality or a celebrity or anyone that inspires you. Do you find any common traits in them? 

A few years ago, a small video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was online in which he was literally strutting out of his official residence and addressing the barrage of media questions from the lawns. That clip showed him as sporty, fully in control, energetic and positive, key traits for a leader of that stature. 

We’ve all heard that body language speaks louder than words, but do leaders need to adopt a different body language to be seen as effective and assertive? Yes, for sure. Because leaders have far more people watching their every move and they cannot just afford to send the wrong message. 

Several world leaders and business leaders are known to be seen as cool when appearing in public or addressing their teams. From Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy whom I personally adore for their confidence in the way they carried themselves, to ex US President Barack Obama. They all have a special style. Barack Obama, for instance, always walked briskly and had sharp strides. His subtle use of hand gestures, body posture, his lean frame and gazing eyes made a sharp impact on people. Never one to shy from shaking hands with janitors and security personnel wherever he went, he came across as assertive and warm, approachable and yet powerful. 

Why body language matters for leaders

Leadership is all about how people perceive you as a leader. And considering people form opinions in just 7 odd seconds, it’s all the more crucial to look and be assertive and credible for your role. If a leader appears lousy and shaky, people are quick to notice and will label him not worthy, even though he may have all the qualities that would have otherwise made him a good leader. It is a proven fact that our brains process what is being heard by combining it with visual clues, the latter making a far greater impact than the former. 

Take for instance Richard Branson, who is frequently seen doing a fist bump in the air that denotes his energetic personality. Jack Ma who always has a double thumbs up sign. Marc Zuckerberg is famous for mimicking other’s movements and Steve Jobs’ direct gazing in the eyes of the audience that kept them hooked throughout his presentations. 

Some tips for a positive body language for leaders

      1. Walk the talk: If you are projecting yourself as assertive and powerful but your body posture and gesture speaks otherwise, it lacks congruence. People are quick to pick up this anomaly and will label you unfit as a leader. You must appear what you are trying to project yourself as. Simple things as wiping your face too often, touching your nose or moving your fingers from your hair are signs of nervousness. Too many presidential debates in the US have upturned electoral outcomes with the way a candidate is seen as before being heard. 
      2. Attitude counts: Decide on the attitude you want to don. An empathetic and positive attitude is what you need, create that feeling in your mind before you face the people. When you’re facing a hostile or unknown crowd, train your mind to stay calm and composed. When you’re expecting a barrage of questions, go prepared with possible answers. 
      3. Eye before the I: Eye contact and gaze make a huge impact. Looking straight into the eyes of the audience with a lighthouse viewing (moving your gaze from one end of the room to the other across the people) instantly creates a connect like nothing else. Each person must feel that you are speaking directly to her. Not shying from making eye contact also means you have nothing to hide and are open for communication. 
      4. It’s all about connect: Smile when you want to assert a point. Use humor to put across something important. Ask questions. Take a pause in between a long sentence to emphasize. Lean forward to appear more powerful and use open palms. The last one is beneficial because showing your open palms and wrists is a sure sign that you have nothing to hide and are an open book. Look at as many faces as possible and connect with your gaze.
      5. Pick up cues from your audience: Look out for subtle clues that the audience drops. Lost interest is often seen as distracted attention, fidgeting in the seats, looking around, leaning backwards and shuffling from one position to the other in the seat. When you realize that your audience is bored/ not believing what you’re saying, it is seen from their body language. Pick up these hints to alter your speech or your body language to maintain high impact. 

    Mistakes to be avoided

        1. Never combine what you are saying with the opposite posture or gesture. 
        2. Never rock your legs at the back of the podium, your movements can be seen
        3. Avoid holding a podium (if you’re using one) or the backrest of the chair or a table/ paper weight while speaking. It shows you’re holding on to some support because your argument itself lacks weight.
        4. Don’t point fingers at the audience. It never goes well and is seen as a threatening gesture. 
        5. Don’t shrink your body while speaking to people. Instead, experts like Amy Cuddy vouch by the Fake it till you Make it principle, which means, fake confidence through an expanded body and you will soon start feeling confident. 
        6. Don’t use paper to read text while speaking. Always talk freely and not read out a pre-written text.
        7. Use appropriate dressing. Famous leaders like Steve Jobs, Jack Ma and Bill Gates are often seen in monochrome and simple attire. Though they say it’s to avoid making decisions on a daily basis, keeping the attention of your audience away from your loud clothes and only on what you intend to convey earns you an uninterrupted attention. 
        8. Never lower your voice at any point. Keep a steady posture and voice tonality from start to finish. If your energy levels dip, so does the attention of your audience which you’d never want.  

    Leaders need to pay extra attention towards their body language because what they convey can steer decisions and perceptions. 

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