Body Language of Leaders

Updated: Aug 23

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Effective leadership depends on the ability to inspire and positively impact people. But did you also know that your body language will constitute 90% of all communication you have with everyone?

The human brain is hardwired in a way as a survival mechanism, to make first impressions of someone in less than seven seconds, and these impressions are heavily influenced by your body language. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say.

As a general rule, all leaders are alphas. And all alphas display similar body language. The body language of leaders is essentially the body language of dominance.

We'll talk about alpha body language, taking it from head to toe for males and females. All leaders use open, expansive and expressive body language. Remember that body language signals work in sync, and when displayed singularly, will not have the same impact as when displayed collectively. Also, body language signals should never be used all at once, but used selectively in different permutations and combinations for maximum effect.

1. Hairstyles

Hair transplants are all the rage these days, but did you know that balding men are perceived as being mature, important and leaders? Displaying the forehead is a sign of dominance, and even leaders with a full lock of hair will comb it backwards to display their foreheads as much as they can, indicating that they are not afraid of what’s in front of them. Case in point, Donald Trump. If you want another example, remember The Godfather?

For women, all variations of the bob cut is a favourite with leaders. This haircut was made iconic by the legendary Anna Wintour. Traditionally, all leadership roles were fulfilled by men, and for women to rise up to the challenge, it meant giving up femininity to an extent, and that’s what the bob cut does. It makes a statement; I’m a lady, but I can take on the big guys.

2. Eyebrows

Lowered eyebrows are universally considered a sign of dominance. Bear in mind, lowering of eyebrows can also indicate annoyance and frustration, so use this body language sign with caution. Raised eyebrows, on the other hand, indicate openness. The best time to raise eyebrows is immediately after asking a question, since it is an open invitation to the listener to answer, or think about the question.

3. The Power Gaze All leaders exercise the power gaze with incredible efficacy. To assume this gaze, imagine that the person in front has a third eye, and then look straight in the middle of the triangle that forms between the two real eyes and the imaginary third eye. Do not stare hard. Do not squint. Do not put on any aggressive expressions. Just keep an even, steady gaze for a maximum of 3-5 seconds, watch the magic happen. Any longer can intimidate the person in front.

This gaze is an extremely aggressive signal that indicates, “I am superior to you, listen to me”, and almost always elicits a submissive response.

4. Blinking

Leaders rarely blink as much as their subordinates. Frequent blinking is a sign of anxiety, diffidence and submission. This is because frequent blinking is the body’s subconscious attempt to hide the face to avoid confrontation. Subordinates may blink as much as 30 times per minute, but leaders rarely blink more than 15-20 times/minute when engaged in a conversation.

5. Eye Contact

Leaders will always make direct eye contact with their subordinates while talking, but frequently look away when their subordinates talk to them. Looking away signals to the subordinates that their leader’s time is more precious than theirs, and that he/she is doing them a favour by listening to them. However, look away for too long or too frequently, and it rude.

6. Smile

A lot of people are misinformed about the power of smiling, or rather, not smiling. Leaders smile lesser than their followers, because smiling is a submissive signal that is an invitation, a sign of inclusion. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable, please accept me.”

A leader will oblige his/her subordinates with an occasional smile or two, simply to acknowledge their presence. Also, observe that the person who everyone looks towards in the room every time a joke is cracked, is the most dominant person. That’s because the smile is a cry for approval.

7. Retracted Lips

When the lips are pulled back, they expose the teeth. This may be in a broad smile or it may be a snarl of aggression. The eyes should tell you which is which. In a full smile, the corners of the eyes are creased. In a snarl, the eyes are either narrowed or staring. Note that the wide open mouth adds to the already aggressive smile.

8. Speech

All leaders speak with 2 main components to their speech. Let’s talk about both.

Vocal tone: The most pleasant and trust-winning voice is the deep chest voice with smooth inflections. This voice gives you an air of confident authority and is pleasant to listen to as well. The tonality can be the difference between requesting and ordering someone. Watch that your vocal pitch doesn’t rise at the ends of sentences as if you are asking a question or seeking approval. Instead, when stating your opinion, use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

The Powerful Pause: Speaking slowly and pausing makes you seem more authoritative. The faster you talk, the less authoritative you seem. The great Arun Jaitley used both these methods in his speeches.

9. Head Movements

Leaders always keep their heads as still as possible. A rapidly shaking head signifies anxiety and low confidence. Tilting one's head downward by 10% while looking up systematically changes the way the face is perceived, such that even a neutral face appears to be more dominant. This effect is caused by the fact that tilting one's head downward leads to the artificial appearance of lowered and V-shaped eyebrows – which in turn elicit perceptions of aggression, intimidation, and dominance. Only use this sparingly, since it can appear predatory otherwise. Tilt the head further down, and it becomes a submissive signal, displaying sadness or guilt.

If the chin is lifted above the horizontal, it means the person is displaying superiority, fearlessness or if done repeatedly and for longer, arrogance. By lifting the chin up, the person is trying to increase their height so that they can ‘look down through their nose’ at someone. In this case, the person is exposing their neck not in a submissive way but in a way that says, ‘I dare you to harm me’. Again, this is a powerful gesture, and only to be used sparingly to assert authority.