Looking Like the Leader You Are

Working with all types of leadersfor the past 20 years, I find that certain leadership lessons are timeless. How to effectively present oneself as a leader is a question I am asked repeatedly. As time marches on, some of the nuisances may shift and the fundamentals of looking professional remain the same.

No one can hope to have an effective leadership presence without understanding the impact physical presentation and communication have on one’s ability to lead. While many people feel that “superficial” qualities like how one looks and what they are wearing should be meaningless when it comes to leadership, it is an undeniable part of how one is perceived and their ability to connect with others. Our physical appearance is a reflection of our inner qualities and how we value ourself; regardless if we like it or agree with it,countless studies reveal that people make serious assessments of others in less than five seconds after first seeing them.

If you have less than five seconds to create a positive impact on another person, what is it that you can do to ensure that your first impression is one that accurately reflects the leader you are? Within the span of time a breath takes, your goal is to convey the person you are to others—and often without words, as the main observations that can be made in this amount of time are largely visual. The following list provides the areas leaders need to pay attention to in ensuring they are making the best firstimpression:

· Clothing: Intense debates have been waged about what is professional, appropriate or not. My guidelinesare simple and straightforward:

o Does it fit?

o Is it clean and in good condition?

o Is it current? This does not mean that one must keep up with every fashion trend—in fact being overly trendy is often not a plus. It does, however, mean that if it is more than five years old it is likely not going to have the most powerful impact and these beloved items need to be reserved for non-professional occasions.

o Does it reveal anything that people who are not close friends want to see?

o Does it attract attention to any particular part of the outfit? Anything that distracts people’s attention will keep them from putting it on you.

o Is it “at the same level” of dress of others in the group? Expressing your individuality is commendable and if the preponderance of your office is in suits and you are wearing khakis and a button-down, it will be noticed. Find a way to express who you are by your choice of suits and if you don’t want to wear one, find another place to work.

· Grooming: An intensely personal arena and if you are attune to revealing the best you, it has a tremendous impact on those initial perceptions. Here are a few key items on which to focus:

o Is your hair in good condition? Does the style fit you? Because we focus on people’s faces, hair is one of the places we focus first. Make sure that yours is at its best and doesn’t distract from your beautiful face.

o Are you regularly attending to all areas of your physical appearance? You know what they are, and if you are regularly paying attention to them you are likely fine.

o Make-up: Does your make-up accentuate your beauty or does it distract people? Different places, different times we may want to play up (or down) certain features—a leadership look is one that keeps people focused on you and not your cosmetics.

· Accessories: Today we have a variety of items that help us reveal who we are from jewelry to ties and scarves—keeping it simple allows people to focus on your overall appearance and not be distracted by one particular item.

o Are you wearing more than seven accessories? If you have more than seven items on, it is likely too many.

o Do your accessories make noise? If anything is clanking, clinking or making any type of sound—take it off.

o Are your shoes in good condition? You can make shoes last by simply keeping them shined and maintained.

o Does your scarf or tie complement your outfit? One of the most powerful items someone can wear—and if it conflicts with the rest of your outfit you won’t be making the impression you want to.

· Physical Presence

o Are you standing up straight? Posture has a tremendous impact on how people perceive confidence. If you are “standing in your power” you will be firmly planted with your shoulders back.

o Are you smiling? A pleasant facial expression goes a long way to helping people connect with you. Walking around with a scowl sends people scurrying.

o Are you conveying energy? Enthusiasm is highly valued and it is communicated by using your body in an energetic and comfortable way. This doesn’t mean jogging into an important meeting; it means walking in with purpose, comfortable with who you are.

· Voice

o Is your voice confident and clear? With less than five seconds, the only words you will typically say before the decisions about your leadership have been made is “hello” or “I’m NAME.” A clear voice makes a tremendous difference in a positive first impression.

There are infinite ways that people can follow these guidelines while expressing their individuality. The point is not that in order to be a leader you must look, act and dress in a certain way—far from that, it is to suggest that there are certain basics that everyone looks to in discerning their openness to another. If leadership is about connecting with others to move forward toward common goals, then doing everything you can to open yourself up to others will only support your leadership success.

Living the Leadership Choice means not only talking a good game, it also means looking like the values, talents, strengths and skills you want to bring to the world.

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Sandra Yeaman

Years ago, I learned to count to 7, plus or minus 2, to make sure I was dressed enough and not overdressed. Here’s how it works:

  • 1 point for every piece of clothing that is a different fabric from the others (i.e., a suit is just 1 point, but a blazer and skirt or slacks is 1)
  • 1 extra point for every piece of clothing that has a pattern in it.
  • 1 point for wearing work shoes (i.e., flip flops do not count, neither do sneakers)
  • 1 extra point for shoes with open toes (think dressing up for evening here, more than dressing for work)
  • 1 point for wearing socks (men) or hosiery (women)
  • 1 extra point if the hosiery has a pattern to it.
  • 1 point for every accessory that you don’t wear every day (i.e., watches and rings don’t count).

Today, to illustrate, my score is 7 – 1 for my boots (no open toes at today’s temperature), 1 for slacks, 1 for my sweater, 1 extra point because there is a pattern to the sweater, 1 for my jacket, and 2 for my necklace and earrings — my accessories for the day. Sometimes I add a belt to make sure I get to 7.

Emi Whittle

Very nice article/blog/post – need to post that to facebook somewhere and have everybody in generation Y read it! I do value self-expression, and love comfortable clothes, and believe we should not judge books by their covers…. and yet, there is an undeniable element of dressing for success that contributes to our careers whether we like it, or not! 🙂

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. Crazy idea for future blog post or discussion forum: have people share a photo of themselves, then give them feedback on their attire!

Allen Sheaprd

What not to wear –

Ball cap that makes a statement instead of an affiliation. GreenPeace, NRA, Federal (ammo), JohnDeer may not come across as well as IBM, Google, Cisco, BP, etc. Vietnam Vet or even historical “Gettysburg” may be iffy.

iPod with earphones. I viloate this rule at work, right now in fact, but only when not working with any customers.

Hair is tricky. One co-worker put her hair up three different ways in the same day. There was “Office proper” , “Office relaxed” and then down when going out for drinks.

Its really weird, to me, how smiling helps. The facts are the facts. We do not need prince Valium nor Mrs. prozac happy face to discuss the facts. Still smiles and facial experssions do help.

@Andrew – great idea. Perhas put in three or four pictures to get a well rounded opinion.

Kathleen Schafer

Sandra–what a great system, especially if you are good with numbers!

Thank you all for the comments, in sum it seems we agree that many people fail to move forward in their careers as far and fast as they could if they are not paying attention to their appearance and presentation. Hopefully this post is one small step in helping people along!

Victoria A. Runkle

You are not what you wear, but it is the first thing people see. If they cannot get past that, they won’t see what you are.

Patricia Davis-Muffett

It can also be important to figure out who exactly you need to influence and how they look to know what is acceptable. I had a boss once who dinged me on lack of “executive presence,” which was odd because I actually was even more careful when meeting with her (she worked elsewhere) about my attire, etc. Then I realized that my idea of “executive” was hair up and designer pant suit, while she ALWAYS wore her hair down and wore a skirt suit. I switched to (professional) hair down and skirt suits and “Voila!” the criticism was gone.

Philip L. Hoffman

All good comments on a really important post. Last week I was in some Agency level leadership training, and sat with one of the instructors at lunch. He told me that navy blue suits on a man project competence and leadership, especially when paired with a white shirt and slightly but not garishly patterned tie. Hearing that, I have a better understanding of the D.C. powersuit then I did before.

Molly Moran

And I can vouch that @Sandra’s system works (for her, at least) because I work with her and she’s always looking professional and polished.

Brandon Jubar

Personally, I think a beard that is neatly trimmed works well, especially for me. I have 20 years experience, over half of that in procurement, but most people think I’m in my early 30s and not my early 40s. Without a beard I look like I’m in my late 20s and, unfortunately, “experienced” managers immediately assume I’m inexperienced because I look “young”. Certainly not an insurmountable roadblock, but still rather annoying.

That being said, I don’t think a big, bushy beard helps at all, and a “neard” (neck beard) looks sloopy and conveys a lack of attention to detail.

Allen Sheaprd

Beards – interesting. Most professionals are clean shaven. Preference or need? Most actors are also clean shaven in movie but have beards in real life.

Dating can be the opposit. Ads featuring men often go for “Rugged working type” with a beard. Women talk of the “bad boy” image. IMO rock star is more likely to have a beard. Women have commented “Men are lucky. You can have a beard or not. Why not try one” Here again is a difference between “in office” v.s. personal worlds.

Litmus test? Imagine meeting your doctor/surgeon for the first time. Would you want him with a beard. Good or bad thing?

Do not forget religious freedom. In some cultures a shaven man is single. A beard denotes a married man. Its a cheaper and more obvious way to tell.

Jenyfer Johnson

Working base-level Program Management, as I do, the “uniform-of-the-day” is generally clean jeans or khaki’s and a shirt or blouse, with various types of shoes, depending on if you are an office worker or may be called out to the flightline, etc. For meetings with higher-ups, we are expected to dress up, such as dress pants, shirts with ties, dresses or skirts and so on.

I like the fact that my job gives me the opportunity to be more casual on a day-to-day basis because I may be called out to a spill, on the flightline or into a shop and I don’t care to be wearing dress pants or a skirt in that case. Over the years I’ve learned to keep a set of overalls, steel-toed shoes and socks at my desk for the occasional spill response that might occur when I am over-dressed. It’s come in handy.

Yes, your clothes help project an image but YOU also bring a reputation to the table that precedes you and I think that is even more important. It bothers me that women, too often are judged by what they wear (more often than men), when they should be judged on the quality of their work. Part of the reason I try to work that much harder over the years! Just sayin’

Allen Sheaprd

Facts from the State of the Union address and beards. There where three. Non on the floor, three in the balcony.

Beard is out. Mustache are also out. Three on the floor, more in the balcony. Clean shaven face for men based on President, Chief of Staff, US supream court, Congress,Marines, Corning, Xerox, etc.

Thick facial hair of 1880’s to 1910 has not made a comback in 2011.

Kathleen Schafer

My thoughts on beards . . . studies show the a “clean shaven” man conveys the greatest “power” as it reveals the full face. During the past few years, as ideas on the traditional concept of masculine power, i.e., without balance and fully valuing command and control ideology, have waned slightly there is greater acceptance of men with well-groomed beards. Interestingly, bearded men are thought to embodied a more balanced leadership style because they are obviously grounded in their masculine, hence the beard, so that they feel greater flexibility to bring their “feminine” power forward. Mustaches continue to convey a sense of rebelliousness and sophistication.