Look like a leader

Effective leaders don't just have skills: they look the part and understand how their appearance helps them to lead, explains Helen Robinett, Director and Image Advisor of Image Quest.

When we talk about leadership we use words such as charismatic, visionary, risk-taker, smart operator to describe a good leader. But what about our physical characteristics? How much of leadership is accomplished through visual means? Personal development of leaders goes way beyond the theoretical aspects of the role that we read about in management theory. It’s also about the perception of strength and character. A person’s professional presence includes their appearance, attitude and behaviour. In order to get things done effectively through others, it is imperative to create an immediate and positive impression.

Human beings are highly visual. The human eye believes what it sees much more than a human ear believes what it hears. From a gender perspective, there is also research to prove that women are more visual than men. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, discusses thin slicing and our intuitive judgement process. In the blink of an eye, an impression is formed. There are no second chances – so it pays to get it right. Gladwell quickly dispels the myth that it takes as long as seven or 30 seconds to form a good first impression. It happens in the blink of an eye!

Social psychology research shows that we automatically assign good-looking people other favourable traits, such as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence, and we are generally not even aware that we do it. More troubling is the data showing that better-looking politicians get more votes, attractive people tend to get the job over less-attractive people, and that handsome lawyers get better results in both criminal and civil court cases. Interestingly, this is why many attractive people are insecure, because they know people think better of them simply due to the “halo effect” of their looks.

It all comes down to the fact that ‘you’ are the brand and your ‘look’ is your personal logo. Your look and how you conduct yourself in business should clearly communicate who you are and what you stand for. You get to choose how you define your identity and determine the best way to express it in your current work environment. Getting this right is vital to the success of your personal marketing.

Leaders in general are defined as people who can exert sufficient influence to enlist the aid of others.

Successful leaders (such as Barack Obama) are excellent orators and they radiate with self-confidence. The ability to influence comes about as a result of good communication, which includes both verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal communication includes body language, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact. Communication also occurs through clothing, hairstyle and make up.

The interesting fact is that the human eye is drawn to distraction. We instantly see what is wrong with someone’s appearance. Consider the many observations of our female politician’s choices in clothing and hair colour in Australia. Note that few of them are ever positive.

Service industries are highly competitive and we need all the tools we can get to be effective. So what does a good leader carry in his or her visual arsenal?

  • Consistency of appearance. This is about having a standard and a consistent dress code that your team can rely on. You will set the standard and be a major role model for your team.
  • Colour plays a major role in building rapport in life and business. When you wear clothing that flatters and enhances your personal colouring, you appear healthy and energetic.
  • Contrast is a brilliant strategy to use to create height through colour and a strong appearance close to the face. Human beings assume that height and leadership go hand in hand. Every American President has been over six feet tall. Learning how to contrast for height is a skill worth knowing. This creates a high contrast close to the face - communicating leadership qualities.
  • Clothing style and fabric needs to suit your silhouette and fit well. Correct fabric drape is essential if you are carrying a little extra ‘success’ on your body.
  • Quality is key. This is what says ‘I am worthy of being your leader, I am successful already’. Quality is evident in the cut of the garment and the drape of the fabric. Paul Keating was well known for the quality of his Italian suiting. Quality can be perceived, conditional and somewhat subjective. It may also be understood differently by different people. Accessories are often the first things people will notice about you in terms of quality. Consider the quality of your watch, mobile phone, shoes and bag.

With all this in mind, we can now define leadership in its broader, real life perspective. Visual leadership is about harnessing the verbal and the visual aspects in partnership with intelligence to influence others. Just because we know what comprises visual communication, is this knowledge alone sufficient to turn us into top visual communicators? Can we simply take the full “kit” of visual tools and blast it at everyone around us, or is there further consideration required?

Our deference to authority is driven mostly by perception. That’s why a police officer’s uniform or a $4,000 bespoke suit alone can facilitate influence over or control of others. We even act differently toward other people depending on our perception of their authority level, sometimes even adopting their mannerisms and speech patterns. Another study mentioned in Influence: Science and Practice analyzed episodes of Larry King Live, and observed the ability of perceived authority to alter speech patterns. When King interviewed people with great levels of social standing or prestige, his voice style changed to match theirs. When interviewing people of lower status, King remained steadfast, and the voice styles of the guests shifted to match his.

The most important aspect of the data demonstrating the power of authority is that context matters more than actual content. In other words, if a person is perceived as an authority figure, what they say is taken at face value and accepted as fact more readily. It helps someone bypass otherwise common objections. Building authority is therefore crucial to building a business, especially if you are selling services or building a team.

Esquire Magazine journalist Chuck Klosterman interviewed Britney Spears in November 2003. He asked her why she dresses so provocatively. She insists that she doesn’t.

It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about. She doesn't disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once.

"That's just a weird question," she says. "I don't even want to think about that. That's strange, and I don't think about things like that. Why should I? I don't have to deal with those people. I'm concerned with the kids out there, not some guy who wants to be a perve."

And suddenly, something becomes painfully clear: Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I've ever met, or she's way, way savvier than any of us realize.

Top personal branding consultant Peter Montoya said: "She has been so well marketed that the question of her talent is really a non-issue. Like Madonna 20 years ago, Britney Spears is having a major impact on American culture, influencing the way teen-age girls dress, act and think — especially with regards to sex." What’s really interesting about this example above is that it’s all about the visual imagery without the intellect. Clearly Britney Spears is not a visual leader! She may tick all the boxes with regard to the visual but she is seriously lacking in intellect.

As leaders and role models, we need all the tools we can get to be effective. Our inner abilities need to be supported by visual communication. Use your appearance, style and mannerisms to good effect. In the world of selling services, enhancing communication for teams is a skill that can’t be compromised.

Personal marketing is a subtle yet powerful aspect of building leadership attributes. If you look like a leader and conduct yourself professionally, others will treat you with respect and perceive you as a person of authority. Outstanding leadership is when all oars are pointing in the same direction. It’s not style over substance, or substance over style. It’s style and substance that makes for outstanding leadership.

Helen Robinett is the director and image advisor at Image Quest



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