Non-Verbal Leadership

In a recent article in the NYTimes, Linda Hudson described her first day on her job after being promoted to president at General Dynamics:

… I went out and bought my new fancy suits to wear to work and so on. And I’m at work on my very first day, and a lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit. And I go to work and wear my suit, and I have my first day at work. And then I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.

Hudson’s scarf is a great metaphor for the power of non-verbal leadership. Language matters in leadership, of course, but non-verbal leadership — the signals that leaders throw off in their actions and body language — can speak as loud, if not louder than those carefully-chosen words.  This phenomenon can be an enormous opportunity, as long as you understand and harness it.  Ms. Hudson got it immediately:

And that’s when I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was — all those kinds of things. It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization.

I try to focus my students on the non-verbal influence they have on their peers in the classroom, influence that they will eventually have on organizations. This is counter-intuitive in the beginning.  Students often think they’re only being evaluated on the two minutes they may contribute to a conversation in any given class, but I try to explain that the other 78 minutes matter just as much.  Our goal is to get as much out of the discussion as we can as a group, which means everyone needs to work hard when they’re not speaking, too.  It turns out that the body language of one student can have an incredible effect — positive or negative — on other students.

As a simple example, imagine the quality of participation when Student A speaks and Student B is leaning forward and listening carefully.  Not only is Student A much more likely to deliver on the high expectations of Student B in that moment, not only is she much more likely to step up and share something brilliant with her audience of believers, but she’s also more likely to stay focused on the collective learning of the group.  Student B’s eagerness to learn from Student A shuts down the possibility of narrow, self-promotional exchanges that can sometimes creep into the dynamics between students and teachers.  Student A can no longer just talk to me, the evaluator.  She must respond to Student B’s non-verbal invitation to help him improve.  Now consider the quality when Student B is barely listening, or appears bored or dismissive.  Why should Student A bother to do anything but think about herself?

In my experience, the classroom is a microcosm for organizational dynamics. It’s a laboratory for learning how our  choices influence others in the structure of a group.  As I’m reminded every day when I step into that laboratory, our non-verbal choices are a powerful tool for creating the conditions for others to thrive.  The next time you are in a conversation, take note of how the body language of listeners affects the speaker.  If you accept the premise that our job is to bring the best out of the speaker, then we need to learn how to lead non-verbally.  The first step is understanding that we’re accountable for it.

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