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Leadership posture: lead with your body! – CEO Reflections #4

Updated September 23, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Posture for leaders

It is a well-known fact that body language stands for a very high portion of our message when we communicate. I will explain how posture affects you in a leadership position as well as provide some do’s and don’ts in the area of posture. Keep in mind that a leader’s posture and body language mean different things in different settings. If you slump down in your chair and lean backwards when you are with people that know you, it might not be a big problem. If you do the same in a meeting with someone you have never met before, they will likely feel you are a bit uninterested in the topic than if you had been at the edge of your seat with anticipation for what is coming next. However, leaning forward with an angry face would signal something very different of course. A commanding leader will display different posture than an affiliative leader for instance.

Posture significance in leadership

A person’s posture signals quiet a bit to the surrounding people very quickly. Posture gives information on emotional states, social standing and different personality traits. Since posture is immediately observed by and observers, it is key to understand how to handle your posture as a leader and what different postures can transmit to your audience and followers. Knowing the impact, what to do as well as what not to do is one of the tools in your leadership toolbox. Posture is of course just one of the different parts of body language, so make sure you get an overall understanding and remain congruent in your signaling to the surroundings. Sending off a happy message with your posture while having an angry facial expression is just going to confuse everybody and make you seem less trustworthy in the end. Bear in mind that posture is not just applicable when you are standing, it is just as important when seated.

The general basics is that standing up straight with your shoulders back signals confidence and well being to the people around you. As a leader, you should aim for having a good natural posture as your basic posture and avoid constant slouching and other negative poses. Imagine a car salesman trying to sell you a car while slouching and crossing his or her arms versus the salesman standing straight, shoulders back and a smile on the face. Which one will you be more likely to trust and listen to? As a leader, you want and need people to follow you so make sure you have the posture of a leader and display trust, confidence and high energy. This will enable you to communicate in a trustworthy  way so that people will listen and believe in you and what you say. You need to develop your self-awareness so that you know what you are transmitting to others. (Refer to our article on the Six Leadership Styles for more information on Self-Awareness as part of Emotional Intelligence.)

Research performed at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University[1], shows that our posture also affects how we act. If you are in a more open posture, you will not only seem more powerful, but you will also feel more powerful and are more likely to act in a powerful manner. This can be key if you want your posture to convey your capability as a leader as well as making you become better leadership material in the process. In fact, the research showed that your posture affects your behavior more than your actual hierarchical role. Imagine that!

So, your posture as a leader have double effect. It can make you act in a more powerful way and it will also signal leadership capabilities to the people you interact with.

Another study has also proven increased performance when retaining a good, firm, erect posture and avoiding slouching. It is basically making you think better. It also reduces feelings of anxiety and tension as a bonus[2].

Open or closed posture for leaders?

Imagine that you are bracing for impact or trying to protect yourself during a bear attack. That would be examples of closed posture. A closed posture can signal hostility, fear, or disinterest to name a few emotions. A closed posture generally signals unpleasant feelings to people around you. 

In a closed posture, you would generally position yourself to protect your abdomen, your throat and your genital area. Even if you are not in any acute danger, your posture can reflect nuances in your mood such as fear, uncertainty or caution. Crossing your arms, hands together across your groin area, crossing your legs etc. are indicators of a closed posture. “Hiding” behind objects can give the same impression, i.e. sitting with your briefcase in your lap and hugging it close. Your hands would typically be closed, palms down, fists or grasping around something.

An open posture is pretty much the opposite of a closed posture. It means opening up your body in a welcoming and unprotective way. Your head is kept straight and perhaps slightly upwards – not protecting the throat. Your arms are on the sides or used for open, palms up gestures rather than protecting your chest. Legs are spread in a relaxed manner. As mentioned above, an open posture is also affecting your own mental state towards acting more powerful.

Your posture indicates your attitude

How you orient and lean your body are important clues on your attitude as a leader. If you lean slightly towards someone you are engaging with, this will subconsciously indicate interest whereas leaning backwards, away from the person can be seen as disinterest or even disgust. This can be done with the entire body or just the head, i.e. pushing your head forward just a bit or pulling it back as much as your neck permits it to. Orienting your body towards someone is an important indicator in showing interest but squaring off straight against another person might even be seen as aggressive, especially if couple with an aggressive facial expression of course.

Imagine if you are talking to someone and the person keeps their side or back to you. You would feel ignored right? This position indicates disinterest or unwillingness to communicate. Ignoring people would be a poor posture for a leader, so do remember to avoid this. If you lean in over the table during a presentation by a team member will signal that you are interested in the topic. Leaning backwards could signal the exact opposite.

Your posture does not only indicate your attitude to the person the attitude is directed towards when you are a leader. Everyone present will observe your posture, so if you are ignoring a person in a group, the rest of the group will detect a lack of interest, respect etc. towards this specific person. Hence, your posture as a leader can also affect group dynamics. Use this to your favor and be mindful of displaying a positive attitude to all your team members, both in private as well as in group settings.

Posture imitation or mirroring

Another portion of attitude connected to posture is what is popularly referred to as “mirroring”. People have a natural inclination to imitate each other while spending time together. This happening is a good example for good rapport between individuals. This can involve using similar gestures, posture, energy levels and many other things. A complete lack of mirroring will feel in-genuine and pretended. Imagine you walking into the room of a direct report loaded with happy, positive energy and asking about their day and they respond that they have just got bad news concerning a family member and a slouching posture. You would immediately lower your energy, become understanding or sympathetic or similarly right? Staying a happy and jolly person after hearing this and seeing their sad body language would seem totally unemphatic and make you seem rather weird, wouldn’t it? You would probably adjust immediately and automatically, and this is one example of mirroring.

Some mirroring can be inserted consciously but be mindful with this since it will get weird very fast if someone feels you are literally imitating them in an unnatural way. If you are caught doing this, the counterpart will very likely think you are strange and inauthentic.
Mirroring is useful in building rapport with others, this can help you improve your affiliative leadership.

Your leadership posture can signal social standing

In certain cases, your posture can also signal your social standing. Imagine the leader of your country walking into your room – you would probably get a bit anxious and nervous whereas the counterparty would be relaxed. This is an example of posture as an indicator of social standing. How you stand, sit or move your body around different people is often different. Be mindful of patterns in your posture connected to different individuals so you really convey what you want to convey.

Let us say you and your management team shall have a presentation by your boss, the chairman of the board. If you go from being relaxed and calm to having a nervous posture and looking tense when your boss is in the room, the signals to the rest of your team would not be good. In a case like this, it would calm your team if you retain a similar posture as you always do, signaling that you are confident and relaxed with your boss and not worried in your dealings with him or her. 

Be mindful of signaling that you perceive another person having lower social standing than yourself. It can say something about how you view and treat other people. Let us take a simple example, behaving like a power mongering buffoon while talking to the waiter and then turning back to your team and being friendly again is not really showing you off as a nice person or a good leader for that matter.

Lead with Posture: Conclusions

Be mindful of your posture as a leader. Be mindful of how it affects you and the people around you. Make sure you are sending a consistent message with your entire body language and not displaying a posture not matching your other nonverbal indicators such as facial expression.

Furthermore, understand how to read the posture of others, it can give you important clues on how they are feeling at the moment and gives you a chance to act accordingly. For inspiration, read this related article: Is Empathy Important in Leadership?

Do you have any thoughts on posture as a leader? Any specific situations that you have witnessed or been in? Please comment below.

[1] https://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/news_articles/2011/powerful-posture.aspx

[2] https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/19455

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