How to Lead without Saying a Word (HBR)

Leaders can sometimes communicate more without words than with them. What matters is poise and conviction.

That came to mind as I watched Kevin Bacon’s performance in Taking Chance, an HBO movie based upon Lt. Col. Mike Strobl’s moving account of escorting a slain Marine, Lance Corporal Chase Phelps, to his final resting place in Wyoming. While Bacon has the lead role, it seems he has no more than 10 pages of dialogue to deliver and most of that in one to two sentences at a time. Without the benefit of words we see the compassion he bears for the young Marine, the conflict he undergoes because he is not in combat himself, and the strong bond for service he carries.

What Bacon’s performance reminds us is that a leader need not always use words to convey meaning; non-verbal cues often say more than words can ever do. Unfortunately, too often non-verbal cues are displayed to the wrong effect, that is, to display distraction, disregard or even distaste. Those in charge, especially those in very senior positions, must be careful not only with their words but with their body language. Here are some suggestions.

Relax your facial muscles. I once worked with a talented engineer who had a real affinity for teaching others; it was something he enjoyed doing. But since he was new to his firm, people didn’t know him and when they saw him they would see him in his office with his face scrunched up and seeming very intense. His body language said, “Stay away!” In reality he was deep in concentration but with people he could be engaging. He worked on reminding himself to relax his facial muscles. When he did so, he seemed more approachable, and as such was able to connect better with his new colleagues. (Yes, you can practice relaxing your facial muscles by looking in a mirror. This is not vanity.)

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First posted on on 5/18/2010