How women can take control of their leadership presence

You may have a leadership title, or tremendous leadership potential, but that in itself doesn’t give you leadership presence.

These are typical comments I hear when asked to coach an up-and-coming female whose career has stalled:

“It isn’t that she couldn’t do the next job. It’s that no one on the executive team sees her that way.”

“She has a great track record, but she doesn’t look like a leader.”

“She’s warm and friendly, but she doesn’t have the gravitas we are looking for in a senior position.”

Leadership presence is not an attribute automatically assigned to you because of your business results. It isn’t necessarily reflective of your true qualities and potential. Instead, it depends entirely on how others evaluate you. Being perceived as a leader when interacting with customers, peers, or executives, is the essence of leadership presence.

Women face unique challenges when it comes to being perceived as leaders. They may even add to these challenges by buying into to the “Imposter Syndrome,” or using body language that appears submissive, or waiting for others to recognize and reward their achievements.

You can’t avoid making an impression on others, but you can control the kind of impression you make.

Or can you?

Here are three situations where you have absolutely no control over some aspects — and total control over others:

1) Making a great first impression

What you can’t control:

Other people’s biases, prejudices, and negative past experiences with someone you resemble.

What you can control:

It takes less than seven seconds for people to assess your power, confidence, competence, warmth, and empathy. Here are seven ways to make your first impression a positive one:

2) Projecting authority and power

What you can’t control:

Gender stereotyping — that (primarily) subconscious preference for females to be seen as nurturing, rather than powerful.

What you can control:

There are two sets of signals that people look for in leaders: Power/Authority/Status and Warmth/Empathy/Likeability. Women usually get high scores in the warmth category, but may lose ground when it comes to projecting authority and power.

When you are feeling sure of yourself and your message, you automatically display signs of authority and power. What interferes with this natural process is the Imposter Syndrome — the inability of women (more than of their male counterparts) to internalize accomplishments, resulting in the fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. And that insecurity is often displayed nonverbally.

To build your intrinsic self-confidence, try recording your small wins in a success journal (on a daily basis — perhaps right before you go to bed) and watch how this act of awareness boosts your self-esteem. Also, notice what your body is saying.

Women tend to condense their bodies, keeping elbows tucked in close to their sides, tightly crossing their legs, stacking their materials in small, neat piles, and contracting their bodies to take up as little space as possible. When you sit in a manner that makes you looks smaller, it also minimizes your look of authority.

On the other hand, power and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through a command of height and space. When you sit up straight, claim space by hooking an arm over the back of your chair and spreading out your belongings, you appear to be more assured. While standing with your feet close together makes you look hesitant or unsure of what you are saying, widening your stance, relaxing your knees and centering your weight in your lower body give you a “solid” and confident look.

The quality of your voice can also be a deciding factor in how you are perceived. Speakers with higher-pitched voices are judged to be less powerful and more nervous than speakers with lower pitched voices. One easy technique I learned from a speech therapist is to put your lips together and say, “Um hum, um hum, um hum.” Doing so relaxes your jaw and throat, allowing your voice to find its optimal pitch.

Remember: You don’t have to choose between warmth and power. You can remain likeable and still project more authority simply by exhibiting these subtle nonverbal cues.

3) Being a serious contender for that senior position

What you can’t control:

Favoritism or a “boy’s club” mentality.

What you can control:

Sharpen up your presentation skills. You impact and influence an audience best when your messages are clear, compelling and brief. Simplicity isn’t just a “nice to have” communication technique. It’s a necessity for being perceived as a leader. A good tip is to ask yourself: “In 10 words or less, what is my key message?” If you can’t state it succinctly to yourself, you are not ready to communicate it to others. I also advise using the “newspaper format” of stating that key message (the headline) upfront.

Sometimes the smallest word choice can have a big impact. Use words that carry a sense of ownership and self-reliance. Say “I won’t” (which indicates you have decided not to do something) rather than “I can’t” (which implies you don’t have the skills or talents for the task). Say “I choose to,” not “I have to.”

Just as important as it is to use self-assured phrases, it is equally important to eliminate qualifiers, fillers, and minimizers. People will judge you as lacking conviction if you use qualifiers such as: To the best of my knowledge … I could be wrong . .. This may not be a good idea but… Fillers like “um” and “uh” make you seem unprepared and uncertain. (BTW: Many fillers can be eliminated if you just pause between thoughts.) And minimize your use of minimizers – eliminating words like: “Maybe, “sort of,” “kind of,” “somewhat” – if you want to sound confident.

Research with senior leaders in Silicon Valley found that the top criterion for promotion was visibility. That’s why doing a great job and communicating well are only the prerequisites for being considered for a senior-level promotion. One savvy female executive stated it this way: “It’s not enough to be a legend in your own mind.”

Are the executives in your company aware of your talents and job performance? If not, you need to increase your visibility by volunteering for key projects, offering to give presentations, publicizing your team’s accomplishments, and taking an active part in your professional association. You need to broaden and deepen your network and look for mentors and sponsors who will guide and help promote you.

You don’t have total control over other people’s perception of you, but you may have more control than you think.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit