How to Look Like a Leader

Portrait of confident businesswoman with business people in background
Portrait of confident businesswoman with business people in background

We all know the statistics way too well. Less than five percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women; 19.2 percent of public company board seats are held by women. We continue to try and push through the glass ceiling but only a few women actually make it. We keep asking ourselves why.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal chronicled some ongoing research regarding the "look of leadership" conducted by psychologists at the Berkeley and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California, the University of Portland and Oklahoma State. When shown pictures of men, the volunteers consistently rated the ones with higher strength scores as having more leadership abilities. Strength was not a distinguishing factor when pictures of women were shown, but height was.

Others have posited that the typical chief executive is more than 6 feet tall, has a deep voice, good posture, a touch of grey in his thick, lustrous hair and for his age, a fit body. We definitely attribute leadership skills to a stereotypical view of what a leader should look like.

So how do we as women (especially those that are under 5-foot 6") overcome this stereotype and project the traits of leadership. Margaret Thatcher decided to lower her voice in order to project leadership qualities. Others modify what they wear, how they project power and how they communicate so others listen. All of these are good. But at some point we need to change the stereotype. And the women who make it to the top and are successful are certainly doing this. One can only think about women like Indra Nooyi, who is changing the face of leadership in America.

Although changing the stereotype is laudable and necessary, it will require lots of time. Diversity initiatives are rampant and some of us are benefiting from the goal to have more women at the top. But in the meantime, are there specific qualities that we, as women, should seek to incorporate in our lives as a means of projecting the look of leadership? Here are some thoughts:

• We should strive to exude self-confidence -- but do it with humility and in a way that is inclusive and not exclusive. This includes in how we dress and how we appear to others.
• We should work on our communication skills. Those who communicate well and have the ability to communicate a message simply and with guidance can exhibit leadership qualities. And saying it in a deeper voice, as Margaret Thatcher did, may help.
• We should coach and provide guidance to others in our organization. You can't be a leader without followers, and this is the best way to have others believe in you.
• We should remember that part of being a good leader is being accessible to others and demonstrating a personality that others want to be around. Humor in stressful situations always helps. A leader makes the situation better, not worse.
• We should never forget the basics of leadership: intelligence, initiative, judgment and foresight. No one will follow those that do not inspire and motivate.
• And we always should strive to look beyond the stereotypes and provide others the opportunity to excel-- even though they may not meet the general view of what is acceptable. Inclusion and opportunity are very important to changing the stereotypes which limit all of our diversity efforts. Set the example. Don't let stereotypes block your view of people.

So, there is no need to run to the gym and start lifting weights or to try and wear those 4-inch heels that hurt your feet. Work on the qualities of leadership and exude the power that you are meant to have.