Having the presence of a leader means projecting confidence and calm even in stressful situations. Whether you are in a small group meeting, participating in a one-on-one interview, or addressing a large audience, you communicate leadership not just by what you say, but how you say it—and not just with your words but with your body. That’s why effective leaders make sure their body language and voice don’t undermine their words. Key tools for conveying leadership presence are posture, eye contact, vocal quality, and authentic connection.
Posture Matters: Stand Up Straight
Leadership presence begins with your posture and how you hold yourself. But you don’t have to always be at attention like a West Point cadet. Whether sitting, standing or moving, your posture should be upright yet relaxed. It’s a position that is balanced, doesn’t strain any part of the body and permits movement and gestures.
To put yourself in that position, think about your posture in terms of its length, width and depth. Your length is the “backbone” of your posture. Imagine a balloon is tied to a string extending from your spine through the top of your head. The balloon is pulling your head up, elongating your spine, making you stand (or sit or walk) taller and maybe a little lighter too. The balloon’s upward pull helps to balance your body, aligning your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, your arms at your sides, and your legs shoulder-width apart.
A leader whose shoulders slump or whose chin bobs down in front of his neck, may give people the impression that he lacks confidence or is not enthusiastic about what he has to tell them.
Your posture’s width is an indicator of how much space you occupy. Some people seem to make themselves smaller by holding their arms and legs close to their body, making minimal hand gestures, and talking softly; in short, taking up as little space as possible. Others take up too much space—making broad gestures, throwing their arms across the backs of chairs beside them, spreading their papers all over the conference table, speaking loudly and boldly, and invading others’ personal space. A leader who maintains appropriate width reinforces her position while making room for others both physically and psychologically. This posture invites connection and shows an openness to give and take.
Depth looks at your posture from the side. Someone who is always leaning forward can seem to be ahead of herself and in a hurry, thinking about the future and not present in the moment. Conversely, if she is leaning back, with her body ahead of her head she can seem detached or stuck in the past. And the leader who pushes his chest out may seem overconfident or arrogant.
To assess your posture, stand in front of a full-length mirror and check yourself against the dimensions of length, width and depth. To hold your aligned leadership posture, breathe deeply from your belly and visualize your feet connected to the earth like the roots of a tall tree.
Tension and stress are often evident in one’s face—from a clenched jaw and glaring eyes to a creased forehead and lips pressed tightly together. But tension is also evident in your posture. Are you squeezing your shoulders up to your ears? Are you clenching your stomach or buttocks? Are your hands balled into fists? If so, recall your aligned posture and rebalance your body. You’ll discover that adopting good posture helps reduce tension in your body.
Eye Contact: The Shortest Distance Between Two People
Making eye contact shows that you are open to seeing the other person and being seen. When someone looks away, up, or down as you interact with them, it’s as if something else has captured their attention and you are no longer worthy of it. Offering too little eye contact can be perceived as being dismissive or uninterested.
On the other hand, too much eye contact can make the other person feel uncomfortable, like they are facing an inquisition. Shy people may also find it difficult to maintain eye contact even for short periods. If you think the other person is uncomfortable with lingering eye contact, make a point of glancing away from time to time, but always come back to the person, like you are checking in. Try directing your sight to an area just above the person’s eyes or the top of the ear. The connection will remain without the stress of direct eye contact.
Speak with Authority, Right?
Think of your voice as the clothing in which you dress your words. Just as your clothing sends a message as soon as someone sees you, your voice sends a message when someone hears you. Elements that determine vocal quality include pitch, projection, pace, inflection and diction.
Lower pitched, resonate voices tend to be associated with leaders, and that gives men a natural advantage. But for both men and women, when we’re nervous or stressed, the pitch of our voices tends to go up. Being nervous can also make us speak more softly. But when told to “speak up,” we may yell and sound shrill. By consciously lowering our pitch and concentrating on projecting our voice—not screaming—we convey the confidence of a leader. To find a good pitch, say “uh huh” several times. Saying “uh huh” automatically lowers your pitch.
Inflection and pacing are also important to a voice that contributes to leadership presence. Speaking in a slow monotone is deadly, while accentuating key words improves understanding and varying pace can build excitement. You may have heard some people whose voices always go up at the end of a sentence? Like they’re asking a question? That’s called “upspeak” and it sabotages leadership authority because it makes the speaker sound uncertain.
Engaging With Confidence
Leadership presence isn’t just about your own presence. It’s about the people with whom you are present. Being actively and authentically engaged with them builds your confidence and their confidence in you. If a leader is tense or nervous, others can sense it and feel uncomfortable. And if a leader is worried about making a good impression, all his attention is on himself, not on the others. To connect with the people you are leading and be present with them, put yourself in their shoes and engage your empathy. What are they concerned about? How will your ideas help them? As soon as your focus shifts from yourself to others, a connection can develop that you can strengthen using the other tools of posture, eye contact and vocal quality.
As a leader you have many tools at your disposal to establish your credibility, communicate your engagement, and influence outcomes. The qualities that contribute to leadership presence may be subtle but they are powerful. Mastering them is easy once you recognize their power.
Building Leadership Memory
The time to develop the relaxed yet confident posture that is a hallmark of leadership presence is before you step into a leadership role and especially before you find yourself in a stressful situation. By practicing techniques and exercises designed to help you center your body, you create muscle memory that allows you to quickly reposition your body into the relaxed posture of a leader even when you’re under pressure.
Body centering exercises developed by the Strozzi Institute are particularly helpful in creating aligned muscle memory. In one exercise, called the two step, you start from a standing position with your feet together and step forward with one foot while simultaneously turning to face the opposite direction and bringing your other foot to align with the new direction. It sounds simple, but if you’re not centered and present, the movement can be awkward. By repeating body exercises you can develop strong muscle memory of a centered and aligned posture and you can call upon this memory at will.