The Hidden Qualities And Tiny Tricks That Make Someone An Influential Leader

Some leaders seem only interested in themselves while others fall all over themselves apologizing. The best find a balance between the two.

The Hidden Qualities And Tiny Tricks That Make Someone An Influential Leader
[Image: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler]

Experts say you only have a few seconds to make a first impression. What exactly happens in those few seconds that determine whether someone likes or respects you?


It turns out, when others are sizing you up, they’re measuring your “strength” and “warmth,” characteristics, according to communication strategists Matt Kohut and John Neffinger in their book Compelling People, which is currently being taught at Harvard and Columbia Business Schools.

Strength is your capacity to make things happen with skills and willingness while warmth is the sense that you share the same feelings, interests, and view of the world as the person you’re speaking to.

“The discovery of strength and warmth that John and I had came from our early clients,” says Kohut. “They were either very accomplished and smart people to the point that they seem only interested in themselves and come off very cold and unfeeling. Or they were the nicest people in the world, but they were falling all over themselves apologizing and we feel like they won’t be able to deliver when the shops are down.”


The authors concluded that the path to influence–and the common thread that makes leaders like Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey influential–is the ability to balance both strength and warmth to gain the respect and trust of others.

“Once you grasp this insight, it opens up a whole new window on the human experience,” write the authors. “You can understand why a person is appealing by looking closely at how they project strength and warmth. Or, if a person is not so appealing, you can see what makes them seem cold or weak.”

According to Kohut, everyone starts with some kind of combination of these two criteria, but by recognizing strength and warmth, people can change their balance.

“Do we think that charisma can be taught? Yes, definitely we do,” he says. “People like Bill Clinton have worked their whole lives on being the personal presence that they are. Some people have this more than others just like some people have more musical and athletic abilities than others.”

To come out looking good when people are judging you, Kohut provides a few tips to give us the kind of magnetism we once thought could only come naturally.


Stand up straight and adopt a “heart-centered posture.”

“It sounds simple, but doing these two things consistently makes a big difference. Posture is the number one way to project strength. There’s a reason standing at attention is one of the first things military recruits learn. Similarly, smiling is the most common way we project warmth.”

“[A heart-centered posture] means leading with the chest slightly forward and the shoulders slightly behind. Leading with the heart is fundamental to projecting strength through posture.”

Have a genuine smile and maintain eye contact.

“There’s a difference between a genuine smile and one that seems forced. The best way to always have a genuine smile is to feel grateful for the people around you and the situation that you’re in.”

“Eye contact is crucial for conveying both warmth and strength. When we say people see eye to eye, we mean they share a common perspective. At the other extreme, people who are uncomfortable with eye contact can seem anxious or even untrustworthy.”

Be aware of the head tilt.

“Lots of people go through life with their heads slightly tilted. This can be very warm if you’re listening attentively, flirting, or playing with a puppy, but it comes directly at the expense of strength. There is nothing wrong with tilting your head, but just be aware that you’re doing it. “


Own the space.

“Moving with a sense of destination and purpose demonstrates confidence and ease. It also projects more energy than remaining fixed in one place.” However, there is a difference between comfortably moving in the space and pacing anxiously.

Watch your gestures.

“Certain gestures can really hurt warmth and trustworthiness–leaning away, crossing your arms, rubbing or grasping your hands together, and touching your neck, face, or stomach, for example. To varying degrees, these demonstrate anxiety, self-protection, and avoidance.”

Kohut says ball-shaped gestures look natural and poised, which provides a balance of warmth and strength. You can start by holding an imaginary volleyball with both hands between your waist and hips and curl your fingertips. When you’re making a point, this imaginary ball can grow to a beach ball or shrink to marble-size.

Be comfortable with the pause.

“Overuse of phrases such as ‘um,’ ‘uh,’ ‘like,’ and ‘you know’ signals some combination of youth, inexperience, informality, and lack of polish. The trick is to practice leaving silences instead of using filler, and to notice the effect that these pauses have on the people who are listening.”

Strike a power pose.

“Anytime you are heading into a stressful situation, adopting a power pose a few minutes in advance will help make that happen. Just stretch and hold a big position for a minute or so to give your hormones time to respond–you can often feel a tingle as it happens.”


About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.