I recently sat in on a team meeting with the senior lieutenants of a key function for a professional services company. Not knowing any of them, it occurred to me that there were no visual, outward signs to suggest who might be the leader. For decades, it was easy to spot the leader of any organization: a middle-aged white man dressed in a crisp business suit. But today? Not so much.
Think of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, an Indian-American who prefers track jackets, jeans and sneakers to jackets and ties; or YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, one of the few women at the executive level of a major technology company, whose standard uniform is a leather jacket, black skinny jeans and ankle boots.
Even more tradition-bound industries such as banking and finance are eliminating some of the most obvious leadership optical cues. JPMorgan dialed back its dress code to business casual in 2016, while Goldman Sachs last spring made suits and ties optional.
All of this means it’s more difficult than ever before—even for employees—to rely on attire, or racial, ethnic and gender homogeneity to discern who’s the boss. Researchers from the University of Exeter Business School and the Bradford University School of Management in 2017 surveyed people who described themselves as leaders or were on leadership development programs. It took more study for the researchers to discover respondents didn’t have “a clear idea of what a leader should actually look like.”
So, how do leaders—and aspiring ones—set themselves apart?
- They have clarity of thought. Leaders ensure that they can articulate their perspective in a meaningful and compelling way. Further, they understand the main idea of a discussion. It may seem obvious, but leaders and those aspiring to the mantle give themselves an easy advantage by studying the subject matter. Doing so enables them to focus their thinking on the topic at hand, and to offer an educated perspective that will stand out.
- They know how to connect in a conversation or meeting, and how to lay the groundwork to do so. Leaders start by acknowledging others in the room, and taking the time to greet them. These simple gestures can make others feel more important and at ease, which can foster more productive and honest conversations. Leaders also ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion. And then they’re quiet and listen.
Other easier-to-execute traits practiced by leaders include:
- Entering the room with purpose, making eye contact, and sitting tall and front and center. Leaders don’t relegate themselves to the sidelines. Once they take a seat at the table, research has shown that sitting up straight makes people feel more confident.
- Moving around. When leaders present, they communicate energy and confidence by moving around the room or stage.
- Wearing clothes that fit. Although the show is fictional, stylists on “Billions” have studied executives and the way they behave and live to create realistic characters. And while the show’s hedge fund CEO character Bobby Axelrod’s clothes of jeans, tees and hoodies may appear casual, they’re “not cheap and they’re not just off the rack,” said the show’s costume designer Eric Daman, who tailors all the character’s clothes—even t-shirts and jeans.
- Vocally projecting and strategically pausing. It can feel unnatural, but speaking with authority signals to others in the room that the speaker means business. And judicious pauses give salient thoughts and opinions a chance to sink in.
Today’s more diverse workforce makes spotting an organization’s leadership trickier. Executives like Google’s Pichai and YouTube’s Wojcicki earned their roles as CEOs of major companies not because of their attire, ethnicity, gender or age, but because they developed and exhibit skills that help to persuade employees, investors and other stakeholders that they’re worth following. Even aspiring leaders can embrace these traits to begin the management ascent within their organizations.