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.)
Invite inspection. Ask a trusted colleague to watch your facial expressions and your posture during a meeting, particularly a meeting where there will be intense discussions. If you look bored or irritated, or if you are slumped in your seat looking out the window, you are sending a message that you would rather be elsewhere. If your face bears a severe expression, you may be radiating irritation. Be conscious that people are not only listening to what you say, but how you carry yourself when you say it.
Keep your powder dry. In some cultures, notably Native American and Scandinavian, the person at the top says very little, often speaking last on important issues. Business leaders can also encourage subordinates to speak first and freely; only interject when you have something of real substance to add. When the fur is flying, what gets people’s attention is quiet confidence. Don’t raise your voice. Instead, once you have people’s attention, speak calmly and with conviction. Nothing radiates power like controlled emotions when everyone else is shouting at each other.
Leaders need not walk around with facial expressions that appear “botoxed.” If real issues are at stake, it is wholly appropriate to show some emotion, and not simply with words. A leader is entitled to communicate with authority and vigor, and make it known the urgency of a moment. For example, if a team does not seem to be responding to deadlines, and they have the tools and resources necessary, a pep talk with heat is wholly in order. Such emotion expended for a good cause is a great way to focus attention on important matters at hand.
Of course, you must do it with discretion. I remember a conversation I had with the legendary University of Michigan hockey coach, Red Berenson. He said that if he raised his voice with a freshman, he might cost the kid his confidence. On the other hand, if he didn’t raise Cain occasionally with a senior, that player might lose his concentration. It’s a matter of picking your spots and acting appropriately.
One of the most poignant scenes in Taking Chance is when Bacon’s character eyes the body of the fallen marine in his casket. No one else will see the body, but Bacon feels it is his duty to ensure this young Marine is dressed appropriately for burial. No words are spoken. Bacon’s countenance tells us all we need to know.
First posted on HBR.org on 5/18/2010