THE BLOG

Physical Leadership 101: Yah, You're Larger Than Life

06/23/2015 11:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Physicality--posture, facial expressions, body language, and movement style--streams big data about what we think and feel. For leaders, that data is received by many, magnifying its impact.

Yet most lack awareness about the impact of their non-verbal messaging until or unless it gets pointed out, which may or may not happen. After all, how much feedback do we get about our physicality or body language?

Those who "get it" and take charge of it turn it into an asset: They discover even modest physicality changes result in key upgrades to executive presence, charisma, podium skills, and even following and trust among colleagues.

Here's background and a "larger than life" exercise to help build consciousness and selectivity about your physicality.

Why physicality and body language are both important

It's not news that body language is 80% of communication. Above and beyond that, "physicality," is the bigger picture of how your physical presence and habits impact those around you.

Think about it: If someone were to imitate you, what would they definitely do, physically, in that impression of you?

Now consider a public figure or leader you admire. Watch some video of them with the sound muted. What does their physicality communicate about them? In what ways does it help them have more impact? Did they likely have to learn that?

Generally, yes. After all, we're not born with our physicality--we develop it over the years like a suit of our experiences. And as we begin to understand that, we can take charge of it, almost like choosing what to wear. Then as we make new choices, we communicate at a non-verbal level more clearly the authentic brand and leadership we'd like to build.

So what?

If your eyes are the windows on your soul, then your physicality is the instant messenger of what you're actually saying, and even may wish you could say aloud. That "truth" is being read by your colleagues.

Consider the executive who hears surprisingly disappointing results from someone on her team, and, while planning her response by choosing her words carefully, she starts gripping tightly the arms of her chair. What's the impact of her doing that?

Consider an executive who walks quickly everywhere, even into the boardroom. A board member said, "He's got all the smarts and experience for the top job, but he makes us a bit nervous." Does he realize something simple like the speed of his walk can make others concerned?

So that leg you're prone to bouncing under the table is making your people uneasy. That pen top you're clicking is sending Morse code for "Get on with it," and that nature break you waited too long to take, the one that caused you to walk quickly out of the strategy session without explanation, makes half the room wonder if there's a crisis brewing.

Bottom line: If you are an executive or emerging leader, you are indeed larger than life because your physicality is watched and read in a highly magnified manner by others.

Now what?

Changing your physicality takes awareness, intention, and practice. To make it authentic, there's no quick fix, but there are things you can do, starting with this "larger than life" exercise I ask some of my executive coaching clients to try, and it works well for them:

In the next two to three meetings you attend--either one on one, or with a group, I'd like you to imagine you are a giant. Your body and everything you bring with you (laptop, smartphone, notepad, etc.) are giant-sized. Your laptop is three feet tall and four feet wide, your face and hands are enormous, and your smartphone the size of a laptop.

As a "giant," what do you notice about the impact of your physicality, gestures, and device usage, how you're sitting, walking, holding yourself, and so on? What do you want your physicality to communicate? What messages are you sending?

Imagine everything you do with your body, and your stuff, is gigantic in the eyes of your colleagues and you will be much more thoughtful about your physicality and the brand and leadership you are creating. It works.

* * *

As an exec or emerging leader, your impact on others is probably bigger than you imagined, and your physicality is the most revealing element of what you truly think and feel. If you keep part of your attention on this larger-than-life notion, you will make extra effort to be deliberate about the non-verbal messages you WANT to send, versus those you send unintentionally. This is working for many of my current and former clients, and I hope it's a worthwhile awareness for you too.