Does Your Body Speak the Language of True Executive Presence?


Denise Dudley, Author, Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted

You know to pay close attention to the words you choose, but what about how you look when delivering your messages? Your body language is like a huge sign around your neck—written in a language that’s easily decipherable—revealing all sorts of things about you. And without knowing it, you could be inadvertently undermining your personal credibility with something as seemingly innocuous as a quick frown, or a momentary shoulder shrug—placed at exactly the wrong moment.

Let’s examine some simple, direct, and instantly integrable things you can do as a leader to appear more powerful, in charge, approachable, and charismatic (yes, “charismatic” consistently makes it onto the lists of “traits of successful leaders). 

Open facial expression, combined with leaning forward (just slightly) when listening.

Open facial expression means that you deliberately look like you’re giving your undivided attention to others, that you’re taking in what they’re saying, and that you are not making any dismissive judgments as you’re listening.  The best way to develop this expression is to practice in a mirror until you can sense what it feels like. Why? Because some people unconsciously frown or look worried as they’re listening, which can shut down communication. By cultivating an open facial expression, people will be much more relaxed and receptive around you.

By leaning forward, you signal that you’re interested, engaged, and actively listening to others. We often do this naturally when we’re truly “present” in a conversation. It encourages the other person to open up—and people tend to like and trust leaders who appear to truly listen to them.

Assertive eye contact.

It’s important to look people directly in the eyes when you’re interacting with them. There are actually two times when it’s essential: when you’re giving instructions, and when you’re sharing information. But even in general, to connect with others, you must look at them. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re interested in what they’re saying, you’re confident about your role as leader, and you’re an open, friendly person. Incidentally, it’s also important to break eye contact just a tiny bit, or you’ll appear intimidating. So ideal, assertive eye contact involves looking directly at the other person (mostly), and breaking eye contact (just a little).

Powerful posture.

Studies show that people with good posture are seen as more successful, harder working, and more reliable—all desirable traits in a world-class leader. Relax your arms at your sides (or on your lap or desktop, if sitting), bring your shoulders back, and place your feet slightly apart when standing, or directly on the floor when sitting. With your arms at your sides, rather than in your pockets or folded over your chest, you look open and non-judgmental. (And always avoid playing with your cuticles, jingling the keys in your pocket, or any other form of fidgeting.) Putting your shoulders back signals that you’re comfortable with yourself, able to “own your own space,” confident, and unafraid. Standing with your feet slightly apart (but no exaggerated “block and tackle” stance, or you’ll look menacing) makes you look stable and competent. And placing your feet directly on the floor when sitting signals that you’re in charge of both yourself and the people around you. 

Subtle mirroring.

Mirroring means reflecting what another person is doing or feeling right now. It often happens automatically with highly empathic people, and truly great leaders use this technique consistently. If mirroring is done the right way, the other person will unconsciously feel that you and they are similar, that you understand them, and that you are trustworthy. In a nutshell, you want the other person to identify with you.

Mirroring is best done in very understated, simple ways. And a word of caution: don’t copy everything another person does—if you’re too obvious, it may seem like you’re mimicking them or being duplicitous. Instead, subtly adopting just a few of their postures and gestures will show that the two of you are on the same wavelength.

Warm smile.

In every culture around the world (including those that have been isolated via geographical barriers), smiling is the universal signal for friendliness. There are countless studies on the positive effects of smiling: lowered cortisol levels, increased serotonin levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased blood flow to the brain—for both the smiler and the smilee. What’s more, smiling is literally contagious: it’s nearly impossible for someone to look at a smiling face and not smile themselves. In short, smiling makes you and everyone around you feel better. But what does smiling do for you as a leader? Plenty. A smile can help you disarm an opponent, negotiate a contract, connect with a client, lighten tension in a difficult situation, encourage workers to go the extra mile, and make you appear relaxed and comfortable in your position of power and authority.

In conclusion, positive body language can help you come across as more believable, trustworthy, reliable, credible, and likable. It can help you do your job better on all fronts (including customer satisfaction and profitability), and can make your workers more likely to willingly follow you—and isn’t that what being a great leader is all about?

Denise DudleyAbout the Author: Denise Dudley, author of the book Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted (SkillPath Publications) is a professional trainer and keynote speaker, author, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars. She is a regularly featured speaker on the campuses of many universities, including Cal Poly, USC, UC Irvine, and UCLA, and the author of Nightingale-Conant’s best-selling audio series, “Making Relationships Last.”  Denise speaks all over the world on a variety of topics, including body language, management and supervision skills, leadership, assertiveness, time management, stress management, communication, business writing and personal relationships.  Her website is