How Best to Convey “Executive Presence” Non-Verbally

Dan Hill, Ph.D., President of Sensory Logic, Inc

From U.S. presidents to NFL quarterbacks, I’ve studied their signature facial expressions—looking for the patterns that indicate success. Maybe you weren’t the first choice for the C-suite corner office you now have, but surely you weren’t the 199th overall pick for the job (like the New England Patriot’s Tom Brady). In Brady’s case, welcome to the intricacies of what people often assume is merely a straightforward case of the guy “smiling”.

Actually, just like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a Brady smile isn’t merely a smile. There’s usually a smirk that goes with it, whereby a lip corner will tighten and often rise a little, pulling the skin slightly inward while also narrowing that lip corner. A small dimple or cavity may simultaneously be created in the nearby cheek.

A smirk signals contempt, and contempt in turn signals a lack of trust or respect for others. In short, you’re feeling superior. Does that look constitute “executive presence”? Yes, it often does. Brady is simply statistical superior to his NFL counterparts, and the smiling-smirk look that characterizes him best signals confidence. Match that same smirk with a frown or anger, however, and it turns into a tendency to chastise others as inferior. Then what was confidence becomes haughtiness instead, and is likely to hamper your effectiveness as an executive.

How about anger, you may be wondering. It’s the most common emotion people express in general, happiness aside. So it’s a good place to investigate its impact on others. The basic answer is that anger expressed in moderation or in combination with a smile constitutes what I call the “golden blend.”

The smile is a way of saying “I’m open for business, open to considering your perspective.” The touch of anger going with it signals simultaneously that you’ll listen, but want to make progress. After all, anger as an emotion is all about wanting not to be confused but, instead, be in command of your destiny and make progress. Eyes that narrow, lips pressing firmly together—those are signs of anger. Squint hard, however, or press the lips so hard together that a bulge forms below the lower lip and now what was a commanding presence becomes a little too toxic, especially if practiced too often.

Fear isn’t a disqualifier. John F. Kennedy showed more fear than Richard Nixon during their debates in 1960, and yet won. Fear can indicate how important the stakes are for you, and can help you summon your energies. Colleagues or subordinates who witness your mouth pulling wider, in fear, can see you as committed to success—just don’t let them see that look too frequently.

Most times, sadness, on the other hand, confirms that you’re a loser. Abraham Lincoln felt a great deal of sadness, but then he was confronted by the enormous task of handling a civil war. Unless the last acquisition you made feels that way as you blend two company cultures, better to stay away from an upside-down smile or a wince in your cheeks. Nothing correlates more to failure in The White House than an excessive amount of sadness being shown by presidents.

There is one emotion we haven’t touched on, however, that will surprise you—and it isn’t surprise. Surprise is like fear: it orients you to paying attention, and can be fine. No, the other emotion I want to conclude with here is disgust. The nose will wrinkle, the upper lip flare. Something literally or more likely, metaphorically, smells bad, tastes bad. There’s a situation that needs “cleaning up.”

Truth be told, disgust is an excellent emotion for you to feel as an executive and signal to others. When I compared CEO’s signature expressions to company stock performances, and pro and NCAA Division I athletes’ amount of disgust expressions to career stats, disgust emerges a winner. Greatness means not accepting mediocrity because it “stinks”. You want to do better. Signal that look to colleagues and subordinates and, believe me, they will innately get the message.

About the Author: Dan Hill, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Sensory Logic, Inc., which pioneered the use of facial coding in business beginning in 1998. As an expert facial coder, Dan is the recipient of seven U.S. patents related to advanced methods for the scoring and analysis of facial coding data. He’s also a certified Facial Action Coding System (FACS) practitioner. Dan has done consulting work for over half of the world’s top 100 B2C companies. Among his five previous books is Emotionomics, chosen by Advertising Age as one of the top 10 must-read books of 2009, which featured a foreword by Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons in its second edition. Dan’s TV appearances have ranged from ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Al Jazeera, Bloomberg TV, CNBC, CNN, ESPN, Fox, MSNBC, NBC’s “The Today Show,” and PBS, to The Tennis Channel. For radio, Dan has been interviewed by the BBC and NPR’s “Marketplace”. Print and digital coverage of Dan’s work has included: Admap, Advertising Age, Adweek, Allure, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, The Financial Times, Forbes China, Inc., Kiplinger’s, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Politico, Time, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to his having been a columnist for Reuters. His essays were noted with commendation in the
1989, 1991 and 1994 editions of The Best American Essays. Since his education at St. Olaf College, Oxford University, Brown University, and Rutgers University, Dan has given speeches and led workshops in over 20 countries. Along with his wife, Karen Bernthal, he lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and Palm Desert, California.