How to look and sound like a leader

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If you asked 100 people to compile a list of great leaders throughout history, who do you think would be the most common choices? George Washington? Margaret Thatcher? Julius Caesar? Genghis Khan perhaps?

About Thatcher we know the most. We have video and audio footage of her. We know that at some point she transformed herself from a lady of unassuming and meek appearance, with a gentle and provincial voice, to a domineering Bellatrix who spoke in unequivocally imperial and elitist tones. Not for nothing did she earn the moniker ‘The Iron Lady’.

We know less about the other three. How do you imagine them? Perhaps Washington had a habit of moping around, hands in pockets, staring at his feet in order to avoid eye contact? Perhaps Genghis Khan had a playful and girlish manner, pouting so as to impress his subjects? And Caesar – in what tones did he deliver those great speeches? Perhaps in a high-pitched, nasal squeal? Or in a hurried monotone half under his breath?

I doubt that anyone imagines these historical leaders in anything like such a light. In fact, to do so is comical – to juxtapose such grand names with beta characteristics.

The point is that we spot leaders through certain traits and characteristics that we are hard-wired to recognise. And although there are arguably great leaders who do or did not possess such characteristics (Gandhi, for example), they certainly do apply to most. Note, we are not discussing the traits which make a good leader, but those which we expect a leader to display. So what are they? And how can you adopt them in order to mark yourself out as leadership material?

Strength – Vladimir Putin is well into his 60s now, but he still looks like he’s be able to handle himself in a fight. He doesn’t let us forget it, either – riding horse bare-chested, never missing a chance to show off some judo skills. Vladimir likes everyone to know how strong he is. The truth is, rightly or wrongly, we associate physical strength with psychological strength. Stalin, Churchill, Kim Jong Il, even Thatcher… it’s not a coincidence that they made themselves look sturdy enough to take a few punches.

What you can do is obvious – get down to the gym and lose some of that flab. Better still, build some muscle. Don’t have time? Do as I did – choose an elliptical trainer from this guide by Tiffany – now you can work on making your body more impressive while you fire off emails and take international calls.

Confidence – “Impossible is a word only to be found in the dictionaries of fools”, bellowed Napoleon. Now that was a guy with confidence. What he lacked in stature, he more than made up for in self-assurance and aplomb. It’s tempting to imagine Napoleon to have a high-pitched, shrill voice, although that is quite unrealistically. The man knew all about the characteristics expected of leaders. Just as Thatcher did, if you don’t have the voice of a leader, you must find it. Your words must have gravitas, even a hint of pomposity if you want your voice to say “Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt”.

Charisma – This quality is what differentiates some leaders from having mere followers, from those who have disciples. Winston Churchill, becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain one year into World War Two, immediately managed to rally the thereunto cautious British public behind his war effort. He deliberately made himself recognizable, with his hat, cane and cigar, and gained the love and trust of many around the world with his unflappable confidence in the face of the Nazi legions.

Some say it is impossible to learn charisma – that you are either born with or without it. The Harvard Business Review, however, disagrees. While it is true that some are born with natural charisma, it is also possible, even for paltry nonentities to watch and acquire the semblance of charisma. The first step required here is to be able to mimic passion. Now practice. Take the thing you consider to be the most soul-destroying, uninteresting and pointless event or activity. Let’s say, for example, watching the Superbowl. Now, convince yourself that you are passionate about the Superbowl. It might be that you passionately love the Superbowl or you passionately hate it. Once you are fully convinced of your passion and righteousness, now is your chance to be charismatic. Use your new-found power to influence another’s attitude toward the Superbowl. Better still, use your charisma to get that person to influence another person. See how it works?

Well, there’s my pocket guide to leadership, which could be subtitled “How to repaint your anxiety-stained personality in the colors of leadership”. That’s all from me, but have a look out for Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a charismatic economist who has written about ‘executive presence’ – i.e. what we have discussed here. Enjoy!