A recent Princeton study of political candidates
says it may. In a survey of over 800 students who were shown one second
images of Senate and Congressional office seekers, those candidates who
appeared more competent most often won their election. According to the
study, and reported in the New York Times
(6/14), “the authors theorize that rapid judgments of competence based
on looks… can prejudice subsequent thoughts about a candidate’s other
Not always, but most of the time. Competence was the only factor that
people were able to perceive from a photograph. Honesty and likeability
were less clear from quick photo impressions.
So what does this have to do with things in your office? I think the
sentiments reflected in the study, albeit confined to faces alone, may
be relevant to those who aspire to leadership positions. How you look
may indicate how well you can lead or, put another way, how others
perceive that you can. And when it comes to leadership, perception is
Not About You
If you start with the premise that leadership is about results and
results ultimately come from the cooperation and collaboration of
others, then it makes sense that leadership is less about the leader
and more about the followers. No leader can achieve anything by
herself. She does it by working with others to achieve intended goals.
Therefore, anything you can do to affect the relationship positively
between leader and follower is critically important.
Here are some things to keep in mind when presenting yourself as a leader.
Invest in your appearance. Take a long look at yourself in the
mirror. Women and men do this differently. Women, I’m convinced, look
in the mirror to see their flaws. Men I know look in the mirror to
admire themselves. Women gain a pound and see themselves as rotund. Men
see an expanding waistline as normal, or perhaps as an example of
clothes that have shrunk in the wash. An exaggeration, perhaps, but
women know better. If you expect people to follow you, give them
reasons to follow your lead. Groom yourself. Dress neatly and smartly.
Also take care of what’s inside you. Good diet and healthy exercise are
important to your looks as well as your health.
Watch your expressions. The Princeton study focused exclusively
on facial expressions. For leaders, the adage that the face is mirror
to the soul has validity. If you frown frequently or reply with a
snarl, people will avoid you. Why? Because they assume either you don’t
want to be bothered or you want to bite someone’s head off, perhaps
theirs. Often leaders have no idea how they look until someone, like an
executive coach or a trusted advisor, pulls them aside. So lighten up.
Before an important meeting, sit down, think a calming thought and,
yes, check yourself in the mirror. And smile. It will reduce the
tension in your face.
Radiate authority. When Ronald Reagan walked into the room,
heads turned and people gravitated to him. He had the movie star
appeal. So did John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Reagan may have looked
the part, but he was also approachable. He was a superb storyteller as
well as a good listener. Clinton exemplified the active listening
process. His eyes would draw a bead on the speaker and with the cock of
his head he looked like he was melding with the person, soaking up what
the person had to say. It is more than charisma, a form of radiant
charm: leadership listening is an ability to put yourself in another’s
shoes and make them feel as if they are the most important person in
the room. Watch your CEO stride through the workplace. If she pauses to
chat with people and really listens, she is someone to follow. If he
blows by with a faux wave or cursory glance (and assuming he is not
running for a plane), chances are that person is more concerned with
himself than others, and may not be liked or respected and could be
moving on soon.
Reflect the glory. Appearance matters, and so do appearances.
You want people to understand that you have an appreciation of what
they do. In most organizations leaders lead, employees do the work.
Good leaders know intuitively how to interact with others to make them
feel appreciated. Leaders who acknowledge the efforts of their people
both privately and publicly are leaders who have their fingers on the
pulse of the organization. They know what others do matters and they
acknowledge it. Skeptics may be wondering if can you fake your
appreciation of others. Certainly, but only for a short time. If you
simply act the part, the part will wear out sooner than you think.
Authenticity is not an act. It is an example of character.
Lead by example. Looks matter, yes,
but ultimately it is what you do as a leader that matters most. And
even then, appearances matter. Be seen doing the heavy lifting. That is
front and center to ensuring alignment and push for execution. When
times are tough, good leaders are with their people more than ever – in
the cafeteria, break room and in the work areas. They also may take a
more public stance, serving as the voice of the company to the outside
world. When things are rolling smoothly, they are present in another
way, sharing the glory with the team.
Look Beneath the Surface
Appearances, of course, can be misleading. You have only to look at
some of the rapscallions of business scandals past to get that feeling.
For example, Jeff Skilling, former president of Enron, cut a handsome
and dashing figure. His boss, Ken Lay, looks positively avuncular, the
kind of guy you’d trust to watch your house if you were out of town.
Neither Skilling nor Lay are business managers that anyone would want
to emulate. Both ruined the fortunes and livelihoods of thousands of
people, not to mention the shareholder stakes they eroded.
Yet the way you as a leader present yourself is critical. It
affects your ability to connect in a way that is authentic and leads
people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Every leader must earn
trust, but the door to trust can only be opened if people are willing
to give you a second look, or better yet a long look and a good listen.
That is why appearances matter. So go ahead and buy that new suit, If
it makes you feel more in control and in command then by all means, go
for it. But keep in mind that what’s inside the suit matters more. And
don’t forget to smile once in awhile, too.