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Body Language of Leaders

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

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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.

10. Shoulders

Leaders always stand upright. This is achieved by pushing the shoulders back. Pushing the shoulders back forces the chest out and exposes the torso to potential attack. This posture is thus used when the person does not fear attack, and may be used to demonstrate power.

11. Placing Hands On Hips

Placing hands on hips makes the body look big. A larger person looks more threatening and naturally more dominant. For people with a shorter height, this can make up for it.

12. Enthusiastic Gestures

Leaders know how to keep their audience interested. They will always use enthusiastic gestures, all of them accompanied by arms that are wide open while gesturing. This is an alpha signal where you are occupying more territory than everyone around you. These gestures make the listeners subconsciously take orders from the speaker. No one is more famous for over the top aggressive gestures than the dictator Adolf Hitler. His extreme gestures were deliberate, and practised to perfection.

13. Confidence Gesture

Several prominent male members of the British Royal Family are noted for their habit of walking with their head up, chin out and one palm gripping the other hand behind the back. This is a display of fearlessness and authority, indicating to the person in front that he/she is not afraid of being physically assaulted.

14. Handshake

A classic dominant handshake is with the palm down, symbolically being on top. Another form of dominant handshake is to use strength to squeeze the other person’s hand.Holding the other person's hand for longer than normal also shows that you are in control.

15. Open Palms At An Angle

Gestures with the palms showing signal candour and openness. When being truthful or forthcoming, people tend to use open gestures, showing their palms and wrists and spreading hands and arms away from their bodies, as if saying, "See, I have nothing to hide.”

16. Steepling

Possible the most famous power pose, this one is used by all leaders at some point in a conversation.

Steepled fingertips have two main positions:

  • Raised Steeple – When the fingers are raised in front of the chest, the speaker is giving opinions and thoughts. It is advised to use this position cautiously, as it can convey arrogance or a “know it all” attitude, especially if the person’s head is tilted back. Arnab Goswami is known to assume this pose often.

  • Lower Steeple – When the fingers are in the lower steeple position around the waist, the person is typically listening rather than speaking. American alpha Donald Trump shows this pose in every interview he does.

17. Palms Down

Leaders often pronate their palms to signal power and certainty.

18. The Thumbs

The thumbs denote strength of character and ego, and the non-verbal use of thumbs agrees with this. They are used to display dominance, superiority or even aggression, but thumb gestures are secondary gestures; they are a supportive part of a gesture cluster. The women's movement has allowed them to adopt many male gestures and positions, which is why dominant or aggressive women use this gesture more commonly than men today. Hillary Clinton is the brand ambassador of this awesome power signal!

19. Phallic Displays

Dominant men will often expose their crotch, effectively saying to other men 'I am safe from attack' or 'my penis is bigger than yours', whilst showing off. This appears in standing or sitting where the legs are apart. To make it over the top, standing on an object and spreading your legs is the ultimate show of strength. A commonly practiced alpha sitting posture includes the figure 4 cross legged posture, showing a cool but no nonsense attitude towards others.

A variation of phallic gestures occurs when women do this. Here, it is to some extent a tease or invitation to men but may also be an emulation of the male display, thus saying 'I am as strong as a man’. Female alphas will, at best, cross their ankles to show modesty with dominance.

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