Leadership and Personal Impact

First appeared in ‘CEO Refresher’ (U.S.A.)

There are some people who walk into a room and you can almost feel the energy levels in the room double. Other people walk into a room and the temperature seems to decrease a degree or two. What is it that gives certain people that particular brand of authority?

How do you define this indefinable feeling of warmth, charm, personal impact a person just ‘has or hasn’t got’?

A lot of people use a single word to hide behind;

Charisma – “Oh, that’ll be charisma, a thing that cannot be bought, learnt or given”,

“Leaders are born, not made”,

“I’m just not a natural leader so what’s the point?”

“It’s just something you’re born with – you’re either lucky or you’re not.” etc., etc.

But as Arnold Palmer famously said when asked about his lucky shots from bunkers; “It’s a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get”.

There’s the story of Winston Churchill, one of the best, most ‘natural’ speakers of the last century. Churchill, like so many leaders, was not a natural speaker. Yet in one of his first speeches to Parliament in 1904 he delivered without notes and had to cut short as he become totally lost. He had to sit down in embarrassment. He was quoted as saying that this would never happen again. He prepared relentlessly for every speech after that. For every one minute of delivery he spent an hour preparing. So it wasn’t unusually for him o prepare 30 or 40 hours for one speech.

Although a lot of research indicates that how you say it has more immediate impact than what you say, what you say will be remembered for a great deal longer. So, make sure you’re clear about what you’re saying, especially what your intention is. If your intention is to be helpful and honest, people will forgive many deficiencies in body language, tone, etc. So be absolutely clear what you’re intention is, then check that this is the effect that the others’ take away.

On the whole people are pretty good at picking up intentions. People, being a bit like me and you, are quite clever. We generally know when someone is lying, or “being economical with the truth” or whatever the current acronym is. As a leader however it’s good practice not to totally rely on your good intentions. You may have the best intention in the world but if the audience are not in tune with you they may not recognise this. This could be due to all sorts of reasons – some history with you, previous leaders, something currently going on in the workplace that you know nothing about, etc… If this is the case the effect you have on your audience may not be the same as your intention and you will need to rethink. So, it’s vital that you find out what the effect is as well as being sure of your intention.

The Gerald Ratner story leaps to mind. I’m fairly sure his intention wasn’t to say that his shops were selling rubbish, but that was certainly the effect.

Studies show that leaders appear more powerful by acting as they think leaders should act. “Fake it till you make it” would be one way of describing this process; The more you act like a strong, powerful person the easier it is for people to regard you as this and the easier it is for you to become this.

If you have someone in mind you respect as a role model that makes this process even easier. Copy what they do when they enter a room, answer a question, etc. Suddenly after a few weeks of acting authoritatively you realise you aren’t acting anymore. Within a few more weeks you’ll start adapting and developing your own style.

In terms of public speaking there are a number of simple, straightforward tips that can make a huge difference. From the beginning you’ve got to “take control of the environment” as I think Al Pacino advocates. This means everything you can control you control – the physical aspects; lighting, temperature, drinks, food, numbers, seating arrangements, screen, handouts, etc. etc.

The ‘non-physical’ aspects – introductions, questioning policy, number of slides, timing, your appearance, knowledge of the audience, your preparation, posture, etc. etc.

In a little more detail – ensure you take control of as much of the physical environment as you can, or get someone you really trust and recognises the importance of, to do it.

Don’t be distracted by “Oh, it’ll be OK – it’s the same as last time”. Say “show me” and check, check, check and have back ups for everything.

Also recognise that even done everything you can things will happen that you haven’t thought about. You know this so don’t pretend it won’t. When that fire alarm goes off accidentally, or the police rush in chasing an armed robber, adapt and don’t start thinking about who to blame. Well, not for the time being at least.

The vital part of this is the non-physical aspects;

Make sure you’re introduction (if you’re having one) is correct, and more importantly is what you want. If you’re making a speech in front of 500 people don’t let yourself be introduced with; “Tonight we have someone making their first speech in front at a large audience so please be gentle on them.” Tempting though it may seem to get some audience sympathy it just won’t work.

In a classic experiment two sets of students were given identical lectures and told that the first lecturer was new, and the second an expert. Guess which one received vastly better ratings?

Quick tips;

No ‘death by PowerPoint’ – unless it’s vital (people get bored).

Keep handouts until the end – unless it’s vital (people get distracted).

Practical things to do;

– Stand straight and tall – taller people are perceived as having more authority.

– No leaning against anything.

– Maintain eye contact with a number of people.

– Gear the material to the audience. Mention people’s names – choose people in the group you know, or are popular.

– Don’t talk for longer than you need to.

– If possible allow far more time for questions than speeches.

– The smaller the group the better your message will get across – there are of course practical considerations for this.

There are some leaders who, I admit, do have that special ‘something’. But I guess they’ve worked extremely hard at developing other aspects of themselves, and I really believe anyone can learn to lead. The outside part is easy (well relatively). The hardest part is inside – the intention and the vision. If these are solid then with a fair amount of hard work, the rest will follow.


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