How to come across as a bad leader

Leading by example is not just about business actions, but also about body language

Man shaking hands with colleagues

When Cyrus Mistry was named tycoon Ratan Tata’s successor, the media wasn’t as interested in listening to the new leader as they were in seeing him. What we see is what we believe, and that’s where our most important inferences flow from. Leading by example is not just about business actions, but also about body language. More damage can happen through how a leader gesticulates than through what he speaks.

The eyes

Looking at Steve Jobs pictures when passed away, I remember being struck by how alive he seemed in his photographs. The photo showed him proudly posing with the products he had helped innovate. I felt as if he could ‘see’ me. He could connect with the person who was looking at him, and somehow, some part of me wanted to buy that product. That is the attraction of a fully engaged and alive leader.

When we see a person for the first time, it’s the eyes that we focus on. And a good leader’s eyes are always alive with recognition and alertness—that’s what the team wants to see. It is a symbol of a leader’s motivation and engagement. There is nothing more alluring and captivating for a team member than an alert gaze and an energised expression in their leader’s eyes.

No one wants to talk to a bored leader, who looks up at them hazily every time they walk in.

The gait

Often, during the last few overs of a cricket match we can guess which way the match might turn by watching the body language of the team captain. If he looks defeated, there is every chance the players on the ground have already lost the match in their minds. Victory and defeat begin in the mind and travel into our actions and appearance, before they become irreversible results.

The way a leader carries himself says a lot about what is going on in his mind. A stressed out, beleaguered, and tired team leader walks with his head down, shoulders drooping, a slouch that is hard to miss, and a lethargic gait. Now visualise the opposite. This time the leader walks with his head looking ahead, straight and confident shoulders, and a purposeful and a strong gait. Such a gait inspires confidence and a feeling of ‘we are on the right path’.

The face

What is it that puts us off about a clerk at the government office? Without a doubt, it’s the look of indifference.

Every morning, team members look at their leader and unwittingly indulge in a dipstick survey of his mood, thoughts, and engagement on that day. Yes, it is tough to be gauged this way, but leading a team is never a cake walk.

The face is the seat of emotional expression and while a smile and a genuine nod of good morning can brighten someone’s dreariest day, a look of disinterest is dangerously contagious.

The hands

It’s impressive to see how news casters report everything from the most earth shattering events to the happiest of occurrences, without once bringing their hands into play. They learn to use their facial expressions instead, and control their gestures. Although we don’t need to be so restricted about it, we too can easily express ourselves well without gesturing much.

As much as open palms and exposed wrists convey honesty and openness, hands flying in front of the face convey over-excitement and a lack of self-restraint. Our overt and dramatic gestures might invite more amusement than genuine attention. As team leaders, it makes sense for us to keep the team’s attention on the face when communicating important messages than distracting them with our hands.

Keeping the hands at chest level is the best place for gestures. When making a suggestion, discussing an assignment or resolving a problem, it helps convey honesty when the hands are above the table, open and exposed for all to see. This subtle message encourages the team to speak comfortably.

The handshake

Have you noticed the way national heads shake hands when they sign a treaty? They clasp each other’s hands and cover them with the other hand, to make a classic glove handshake that is pumped enthusiastically more than three times. Although, clasping a team member’s hands likewise isn’t advisable, it inspires confidence if the handshake is genuine, warm, and firm. It conveys a leader’s robustness and willingness to share and cooperate.

The space

Team members also perceive non-verbal messages through the space leaders maintain with them, as well as the spatial arrangement of the leader’s office. Always being stuck behind a big imposing table signals distance and disparity. Being in an open space, on the other hand, is a great way to take away the feeling of being in a dominant position while communicating and seeking ideas.

Remember, good leadership is not always about the decisions you take but also about the way you carry yourself.

This was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Sonali Masih-D'silva
Sonali Masih-D'silva is a leadership consultant. She is the co-founder of Leadership Success Solutions. She is also the author of the book, Corporate Nirvana. Her passion lies in training and writing on areas of leadership and personal growth. Sonali has trained senior leaders at several Indian and international organisations.

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