The same that telling even small lies makes you a liar, exhibiting non-leader traits makes you a non-leader. To brand yourself as a leader, every aspect of yourself needs to reflect that you are one–even if you don’t bear the title yet.
In her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett spells out the traits that people need to possess in order to be perceived as leaders. Executive presence, she writes, “is an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be” (p. 1).
The author deconstructs the concept of leadership, grouping its critical components into three dimensions: gravitas (how you think and feel about yourself, your work, and others), communication (how you “own” a room with your words, voice, and gestures), and appearance (how you dress and carry yourself visually to others).
In 2003, Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes went to teach a course at a prestigious summer school in Spain. The speakers arrived by plane to a nearby airport, and drivers from the school picked them up in groups, to drive them to the course location, a grandiose palace near the beach. Lobo Antunes arrived early from Lisbon and waited with the driver for the rest of authors in his group, who were coming from Madrid. When they arrived, one of them assumed that the internationally renowned Portuguese author, who some people said could win the Nobel Prize that year, was the driver, and handed him his luggage.
The thing is people don’t take the time to analyze your professional persona. People decide whether or not to trust you based on a gut feeling. And that’s why you need to “telegraph” that you “are in charge or deserve to be.”
And everything counts because perception comes from the outside: what we see and hear is what we believe to be true–show, don’t tell.
Over time, our memory compiles a repertoire of all the small details that we see in the people with whom we have professional relationships. We unconsciously keep track of their consistency and trust people whose details are consistent over time.
When with your body, actions, and communication, you consistently signal emotional discipline, poise, humility, calm, confidence, vision, and all the characteristics that leaders have, you are demonstrating that, no matter what your actual title is, you’re ready to lead.
But when you do these three things, you’re undermining your executive presence and hence, your leadership potential:
It means that you’re not in charge and need to call on an authority figure. Instead, look for ways to solve the problem and ask for help directly if you need it–don’t use the complaint to get the help you need.
Leaders are aware of their needs and seek ways to fulfill them with the help of others.
It sends the signal that you’re not working hard enough or you don’t care enough about the project. On the contrary, you send the signal that your top concern is you and that you’re afraid to look uninteresting, stupid, or irrelevant.
Leaders take risks.
It suggests that you feel under exam and are trying to impress some imaginary jury in your mind. But too much information doesn’t help the audience to get your point and so you appear like you don’t care about your listeners. They will perceive you as self-serving, not benevolent, and hence, not a leader.
Leaders speak to be understood and are aware of their audiences’ needs.
Leaders need the trust of their followers and of those who can designate them to be leaders. But because the devil’s in the details, your trustworthiness will disappear in the drop of a hat if you’re not consistent.