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What Presidential Candidates’ Body Language Reveals About Their Leadership Style

The 2016 presidential debates offer a great case study in how leaders display warmth and project power.

What Presidential Candidates’ Body Language Reveals About Their Leadership Style
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Vadon]

If you’re watching the GOP debate tonight to learn about the candidates’ leadership style from what they say, you won’t get the whole story. You might learn more about what type of leader they will really be if you focus on their body language.

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Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” has millions of views for a reason–everyone who’s watched it has understood a little bit more about themselves. But the flip side of Cuddy’s research is equally fascinating–how we can understand others through the body language they, consciously or unconsciously, choose to use.

That’s especially true of leaders, whose body language is on display all the time. For proof, look no further the 2016 U.S. presidential debates–like tonight’s Republican primary debate on CNN. Back during the last presidential election cycle, in 2012, TED writer Ben Lillie sat down to ask Dr. Cuddy how her research sheds light on the people who want to be the next President of the United States. (Read the full interview here). As America swings into the 2016 season, here are four key insights from that conversation about how to judge someone’s leadership style based on their body language–with the presidential debates as a kind of ad hoc laboratory.

Warmth And Power

We tend to judge the leaders who address us by at least two key dimensions: their warmth and their power. We ask: “Do I like this person?” and, “Do I respect this person? Those questions relate to their trustworthiness and competence as indicated by the warm and the power they project, respectively.

As Cuddy explains, “We’re constantly–although usually unintentionally–sending nonverbal signals that people use to judge how warm or powerful we are, and we’re also constantly judging how warm and powerful they are based on their nonverbal signals. So that’s what I’m looking for when I’m watching politicians: what their body language says–or is trying to say–about their power and their warmth.”

The Power Pose

Here’s a drinking game you can play while watching the next round of debates: Try and spot each candidate’s power pose. Watching debates is a guilty pleasure for anyone who’s fascinated by body language. “If you look for power poses, you’ll start noticing lots of them,” Cuddy says.

Pay attention to how expansive the candidates’ postures are: Are they using wide, open, strong, defined gestures? Are they standing with their feet apart? Do they have their hands resting on the outsides of the podium, to spread out a bit more? Puffing out their chests a bit? Racing to be the first one to reach out and initiate the handshake? And how much space are they taking up?

Are they trying to occupy each other’s space, by doing something like grabbing their opponent’s arm during the handshake? Or doing even more aggressive things, like walking toward their opponent and really getting up in their space, LBJ-style?

It’s also interesting to track the nonverbals throughout the debate–is the stronger debater becoming even more expansive and the weaker debater beginning to close up a bit, even in subtle ways, like how much they lift or lower their chin?

Plenty Of Power, Not Enough Warmth

Most politicians are past masters at displaying power. Warmth, not so much. “I don’t see a lot of politicians in the national spotlight who are really struggling to communicate power, mostly because they focus so obsessively on appearing the strongest, the most alpha,” Cuddy adds. “But what these politicians are much more likely to struggle with, or just neglect to do altogether, is communicate warmth and trustworthiness.”

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She studied one congressional candidate who had a habit of smiling at precisely the wrong time: when he was criticizing someone else.

And so there he’d be, talking about some very negative thing…while smiling. People don’t like that. It comes across as snarky and self-satisfied. Voters were like, “Sure, he’s smart, but I don’t like the guy.” I have to say, he really is a truly nice person–he cared so much about what he was doing–but he just didn’t know how to get that across.

You can see that effect in this video clip of John McCain from a past presidential debate, “where he’s saying that he’s going to ‘follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell,’” Cuddy says.

And then at the very end of this aggressive, fierce statement, he breaks into this painfully fake smile. You can tell that someone, maybe a coach, maybe an advisor, said, “You need to smile more, Senator.” And it’s as if whenever he paused, he’d remember, “Must smile more, must smile more,” but it was often at the most inopportune times. It looks terribly awkward, and it makes people really uncomfortable.

Why Warmth Actually Matters

Why do we want our leaders to appear warm in the first place? Here’s how Cuddy explains it:

People judge trustworthiness before competence. They make inferences of trustworthiness and warmth before competence and power. And the reason is that it answers the question, “Is this person friend or foe?” With a stranger, you first want to know what their intentions are toward you, and then you want to know, Can they carry out those intentions?

You have to connect with people and build trust before you can influence or lead them. Trust is the conduit for influence; it’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they’re open and they can hear what you’re offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people don’t trust you.

Keeping The Power Pose Backstage

If you’re a leader, use your onstage time to show your audience you care, Cuddy advises:

It’s really important to separate what you do before the interaction from what you do during the interaction. You want to feel powerful going in–but that does not equal “dominant” or “alpha.” You want to feel that you have the power to bring your full, spirited self to the situation, stripped of the fears and inhibitions that might typically hold you back. I believe this allows you not just to be stronger, but also to be more open and trusting.

But nonverbally displaying power during the interaction–now that’s another thing. I’m definitely not an advocate, as I think I’ve made clear by now, of going in and power-posing in front of people in order to intimidate them or something. Yes, use strong, open nonverbals: Don’t slouch or make yourself small, and be as big as you can comfortably be. But don’t use alpha cowboy moves, like sitting with your legs apart and your arm draped over the back of the chair next to you. That can directly undermine the trust you need to build.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared on TED Ideas Blog and reprinted with permission.

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