The research into excellence in leadership turned the traditional notion of leaders as ‘strong and forceful people lacking in warmth’ on its head. We now know that great leaders start by gaining trust, listening and developing empathy and emotional intelligence.
In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, social psychologist and Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Amy Cuddy, Matthew Cohut and John Neffinger write that warmth and strength are the two most noticeable traits in people. Furthermore, these are also to a great extent how leaders are judged.
Cuddy et al. argue that warmth includes a) trustworthiness and b) how approachable leaders are, while strength speaks to competence. They explain that these traits are important to others as they answer two crucial questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?”
The article quotes research by Cuddy, and colleagues Susan Fiske, of Princeton, and Peter Glick, of Lawrence University, to show that people respond to competent leaders who are lacking warmth with envy, an emotion involving both respect and resentment that cuts both ways.
Cuddy explains that leaders who choose to emphasise strength, competence, and credentials in a professional context run the risk of triggering fear and a whole series of dysfunctional behaviours in the workplace. Fear, she explains is highly undesirable as this in turn limits cognitive potential, creativity and problem solving ability. Fear, she adds, is also a major cause of employee disengagement.
While strength is important, Cuddy argues, leaders should start with working on trustworthiness and warmth. “A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas,” Cuddy writes.
The author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, Sylvia Hewlett, agrees that exhibiting emotional intelligence and showing empathy is a crucial part of having gravitas, a widely recognised characteristic of leaders. She explains that while leaders can be decisive when the situation calls for it, they can and should know when to show empathy.
Gravitas was one of the most recognisable qualities of a leader pointed out by the respondents in her research, with communication and appearance being the other two main qualities. She agrees with Cuddy’s research saying that part of great communication as a leader is the ability to engage listeners, to find common ground and to relate.
In her book Presence: Being your Boldest Self to you Greatest Challenges, Cuddy adds that people only value a leader after they trust first. Abilities come second, Cuddy writes. She also underlines the value of being a good listener saying that this is an excellent way to gain trust.
Although leadership presence is a complex picture, one thing is clear: a leader who is strong, but lacks warmth, will fail to gets the best results from their team. Likewise, a leader who is warm may be well regarded, but if they are lacking in strength they may be perceived as incompetent.
In short, a great leader strikes a balance between warmth and strength!
There is no doubt that leadership presence is a key component to any executive’s success. We certainly recognise it in others, yet it can feel elusive and hard to define. What are these necessary qualities, and how can we cultivate them within ourselves?
In her book Executive Presence, the Missing Link between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert in gender and workplace issues and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, writes that her research identified three main qualities that would give a person “leadership presence.”
“Being able to convey that you’re in charge – just by walking into a room – requires a unique blend of self-possession, charm and authenticity,” Hewlett writes.
The Center for Talent Innovation conducted several studies to identify the qualities that make up leadership presence and these three elements were identified by all those who took part. Leaders may have a variety of great qualities, but these form the common thread.
Gravitas, Hewlett explains, is about how you act. She writes that about two-thirds of the senior executives surveyed rated gravitas as the most important ingredient in leadership presence. This quality is what enables superior leaders to keep their composure during hard times, to make tough decisions when others falter and to speak “truth to power.”
Hewitt also writes about how emotional intelligence is an essential element of gravitas. Executives with gravitas value their reputations, and align their actions and appearance with their “personal brand”.
The second quality of leadership presence as identified by Hewlett encompasses both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. These, she explains, include superior speaking skills and the ability to engage an audience and develop good listening skills.
She also writes that the importance of body language should not be underestimated when developing leadership presence and this includes a degree of self-awareness in order to avoid actions like checking phones or slouching.
The third element of leadership presence, according to Hewlett is appearance. She adds that the respondents in their study indicated that this is the first thing they look at. Taking the time to look polished and professional signals to others that you care not only about yourself but about them as well, she added.
This is a point supported by author and social psychologist Amy Cuddy. “How you carry yourself – your facial expressions, your postures, your breathing – all clearly affect the way you think, feel, and behave,” writes Cuddy.
In her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, Amy Cuddy writes that to achieve “presence” you need to be authentic and say and do what you believe. She adds that people naturally respond to a person who is authentic.
She advises that to gain presence it is important to acknowledge what your core values are and to act accordingly. Preparation, Cuddy adds, is the key as this would allow you to “invoke presence” and be able to state your point of view based on your values and strengths. She argues that the first step to developing leadership presence would be to teach people to trust you and, like Hewlett, adds that listening is a powerful skill to develop.
Cuddy agrees with Hewlett that leadership presence can be learned. She suggests developing a range of nudges, more specifically by using powerful postures and body language, to prime yourself. Where the body leads the mind follows.
Watch Cuddy’s TED talk to understand more on power posing: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Authenticity has received a great deal of focus in the workplace over recent times.
What does it mean and how does it relate to your career development?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines authenticity as “the quality of being authentic; being in accordance with fact; being genuine; being real.” When it comes to considering your job search strategy, it is important to give thought to what this means for you.
Why? Getting clear on ‘you’ will ensure you follow the right path and make career choices that work for you, long term. You will also be better placed to share these goals with others.
Where to start? By being honest about who you are, what you have to offer and desired future direction. This is not a static question, rather a dynamic and creative process.
Many of our clients are initially challenged by this, and find it hard to take the first step. This is especially the case if they have been with the same company or in similar roles for some time.
Sheila specialises in coaching executives to build trust, cohesiveness and direction within themselves, their teams and across the organisations and systems within which they operate. This creates direct and positive impact on overall performance and results.