Chris Lorence: Should leaders smile?

By Chris Lorence, ICBA

How often have you come across someone in your professional career who made you think, “This is someone I could follow without hesitation.” Was it their personality? Their ability to convey thoughts and ideas easily? Their authenticity in conversation? Or something else? There’s no doubt that communication skills and self-confidence contribute to the way leaders are perceived, but what about their physical presence? Do leaders’ physical, non-verbal behaviors support their top-dog status?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” Research by human behavior experts like TalentSmart and others have identified a number of physical behaviors that leaders exhibit. While these behaviors are often subtle, they send a clear message to the subconscious of those engaging with them. Non-verbal behaviors and body posture can indicate that someone is comfortable in their leadership position and send a signal that they would like you to follow them.

Studies have identified many leadership traits and behaviors. But a few stand out that seem counter to what we generally assume about people at the top.

Studies have found that leaders typically:

  • Smile less. Smiling is usually an appealing trait, but leaders tend to listen intently and with genuine concern, without physical expression that could give the impression that your words aren’t being received with sincerity and gravity.
  • Make eye contact. Leaders communicate directly, and that means making eye contact while speaking to others. The aim is not a staredown, but giving someone your uninterrupted attention is powerful.
  • Stand still and don’t cross their legs or arms. Fidgeting, rocking back and forth and pacing can indicate uncertainty or nervousness. Leaders who keep their composure and appear steady gain almost instant credibility. Crossing your arms or legs is often interpreted as a sign that you’re protecting yourself rather than appearing open to receiving information.
  • Keep their heads straight. A tilted head and regular nod can indicate someone is paying attention and acknowledging information, but leaders tend to keep their heads upright and actively focus on the person talking. A steady head and straightforward gaze indicate strength and directed attention.

Keep in mind that these actions and behaviors need to be delivered authentically. That takes practice. Becoming more attuned to your physical behavior is a good first step. It’s better to recognize what your current non-verbal actions are before you start making changes that might come off as out of character or, worse, make you feel uncomfortable.

And remember, if you want to present yourself like you want to be perceived, practice makes perfect.


Chris Lorence (chris.lorence@icba.org) is ICBA group executive vice president–member engagement and strategy.

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