Leadership is Like Hairspray. Is She or Isn’t She?

There used to be a TV ad for Harmony Hairspray. The strapline was “Is She – Or Isn’t She?” The idea being the hairspray was so subtle (and remember folks we’re talking back when hairspray was made out of Superglue – true fact) that you couldn’t tell if the lady was wearing it or not.

It’s a bit like that moment when you meet someone who in a leadership sense has “got it”. You know they’ve got it, and you don’t know why.

We can learn lessons in leadership from well known figures such as Richard Branson, Freddie Laker and Greg Dyke. My friend Peter Massey read these articles recently and asked this question:

I was struck by a senior director I met this week – his personal behaviours instantly meant I knew he “got it” – as in people and customers. It was such an instant reaction that I couldn’t articulate it. Can you help identify what the personal behaviours are that give a leader away within the first few seconds?

I think it’s a great question. Maybe the give away is something to do with presence? So in those first few seconds the person you meet makes you feel like they are right there with you. Focussed on you.

To which Shereen Qutob added:

I’d add genuine interest in what the other person has to say; really listening and thinking about what that person is sharing and then asking really good inquisitive questions that shows they’re engaged. Also, not checking their Blackberry every 2 seconds when you’re addressing them is a plus!

Love the Blackberry point. The immediacy of technology tools has delivered a level of rudeness into the humble meeting which we simply wouldn’t have tolerated pre-mobile.

Cue Jonathan Wilson. One of the best thinkers I know. Here’s what he had to say on the matter.

I rather think that there could be several books written about those first few seconds. I agree with Shereen and I’d like to look at how you can tell people show interest that you value. Here are some summary thoughts based on my own experience and research. I use ‘he’ for convenience, but it is not gender specific.

The first thing the observer sees is a physical body. One factor, by no means decisive (but no single factor is decisive), is height. Tall people tend to be seen as more powerful (on average, they earn higher salaries, occupy more senior roles and tend to receive shorter sentences when convicted (more rarely than shorter people).

The next things that the observer sees are proportionality and symmetry. Proportionality begins with genes and is maintained by behaviour. Because it takes time to change and maintain body shape, it is a good indicator of self-awareness, self-esteem and sustained personal discipline. Most of us have a ‘better side”. Some are better than others. Symmetry is mostly genetic and is a strong indicator of genetic health and integrity. I don’t approve that physical qualities affect how people assess ‘leaders’, but research show that it does. What matters more is what the leader actually does to lead.

Having seen and judged the body in milliseconds, before consciousness has had chance to kick in, the observer sees posture. Leaders tend towards typical postures. Leaders tend to hold themselves quite straight and tilt their head very slightly backwards, e.g. Barack Obama, Maggie Thatcher, (feminine seducers tend to dip their head and look from underneath, e.g. Princess Di). Looking (slightly) down one’s nose is a leadership behaviour that people accept in context and detest as arrogance in other contexts or if overdone. Engaging conversationalists also tilt their head very slightly to one side.

The next thing that the observer sees is the leader’s gaze. Leaders tend to hold relatively sustained gaze that still scans almost constantly, pausing to focus on the subject of interest, especially people of interest. The ability to sustain gaze that shows continuing, real interest, despite competing forces inspires a belief in those being listened to that they have something important to say to someone whom they believe is important.

Humans have evolved to look at eyes and gaze and to read minute details as part of their ability to form community. Most of this is done quite unconsciously. Much of a leader’s power to influence comes from their ability to use their eye movements appropriately. Some of that is genetic, innate and automatic (pupil dilation). Some is unconsciously learned – and this feels intuitive and innate even though it is not.

Then the observer notices the leader’s movements, occupation of space and the management of space between themselves and those in their physical presence. The leader enjoys more personal freedom of space than his followers and takes more liberty entering other people’s space, which they allow him to do.

They will then hear the leader expressing himself clearly and demonstrating a clear grasp of the issues facing the group he leads. He will frequently do this by asking questions that show his understanding and direct his followers’ attention to significant matters. It is the role of the leader to express, direct and extend his group.

Most of all the observer will notice that the leader’s posture, gaze, behaviour, tone, pace and intonation are consonant with each other, with the group and their common context. They are thus mutually self-reinforcing. They demonstrate the leader’s awareness of himself and of the situation and self-confidence that he and the group can handle the situation well. It is this confluence that inspires people and that enables you to see in a few seconds that he has “got it”.

Wow. And lest we forget, a leader ain’t much good without a few followers. John Schonegevel reminds us:

Fascinating stuff. But before we get too carried away by first impressions, let’s remind ourselves that it takes at least two people; every leader needs at least one follower! So there is much more to the dynamic. And every subsequent interaction also has an impact. I suggest that too often we miss out on the importance of ‘consistency’ as a key leadership quality.

Some interesting answers to the question. And as always we’d love to hear from you. How do you know that someone’s got it – in the first few seconds? Is She or Isn’t She?

photo c/o Auntie P