Thursday, April 24, 2008

Building a Leader's Image.

There's no shortage of ways to bust your image. Here are eight common mistakes executives make- and you should avoid - that have a negative effect on their leadership image.

Too much seriousness.

Leaders don't need to be serious to be taken seriously. Leaders who are overly reserved look wooden, stiff and uncaring. A smile goes a long way. Show that you can take a joke or handle pressure with graciousness and warmth.

Weak speaking skills.

In a media-saturated world, people know a good speaker when they hear one. The standard is high, and a leader with a flat or monotone vocal style, inappropriate volume or poor diction isn't tolerated. Whether talking one-on-one or speaking to a crowd, pay attention to how you speak, not just what you say.

Lack of clarity.

Of course, what you say is enormously important, too. Leaders who speak with clarity of thought and message covey an image of effectiveness in a way that a leader who rambles or speaks disjointedly does not. If the message is unclear and non-specific, the listeners will tune out and assume you don't know what you're talking about.


Leaders who overuse the words I, me and my are isolating themselves and not engaging their audience. People prefer to be a part of something, not just the recipient of your efforts. Even if something is your idea, your vision and your responsibility, keep in mind that your job as a leader is much bigger than yourself.

Lack of interest.

Think back to when you were in school - which teachers captured your attention and imagination? The energetic teachers who seemed to loved their job or the ones who lectured dispassionately from the podium? Energy, interest and passion for your work are incomparable assets. Are you interesting and genuinely interested in what you are saying and doing? Obvious discomfort It's painful to watch a leader who is uncomfortable in front of a crowd or awkward in conversation.

If you are tentative or uncomfortable in the roles you play, people begin to doubt your ability to be an effective leader - especially in difficult situations. Inconsistency. Over time, your image becomes tied to your larger reputation. If you have a reliable pattern of behavior - one that is reflected in what you do and how you do it - your leadership image will be seen as genuine. Inconsistencies, in contrast, form an image of a leader who is flaky, insincere or dishonest. Defensiveness. Confidence and assurance is undermined when a leader is on the defensive. An unwillingness to consider other views, a knee-jerk defense of your position or decision, or an inability to seek and hear feedback all undermine your image as a capable, effective leader.

Building a Leader's Image: Asset or Liability?

Your effectiveness as a leader is tied to your image.

"Your ability to project a leadership presence in the eyes of employees, customers and others is closely related to your ability to do your job well," says CCL's Corey Criswell. "Your image, then, can be either an asset or a liability as you engage in the tasks and roles of leadership."

A study of 150 executives who attended CCL's Leadership at the Peak program reinforced what Criswell and her colleagues have observed working with senior executives. The study, conducted by researcher Phil Willburn, shows that the image leaders convey has a significant correlation to perceptions of their leadership skills.

"In this study, leaders who conveyed a strong vision were rated higher on several important leadership skills than those who conveyed a weaker vision," Criswell explains. The leaders who conveyed their vision in a strong and positive way were also seen as stronger in areas such as the ability to lead change, being dynamic, competence in strategic planning, being farsighted, inspiring commitment, being original and having a strong executive image.

What is Image?

Leadership image is created by many things: personality, behavior, body language and speaking style, as well as formal status and physical appearance. Simply stated, your image is the concept that others form about you as a result of the impressions you make on them. Your image may be the conduit through which people initially know you; it can have a great impact on how they get to know you as a person and as a leader. Whether someone is getting to know you through a first meeting, over time or even through the media, your image is being broadcast and your reputation is being formed.

Managing Your Image

Fortunately, you can have a great deal of control over the image others have of you. You can choose to be more open and show a side of yourself you normally keep hidden. You can change how you communicate by improving both your speaking and writing style. You can develop new skills that contribute to a reputation as an effective leader.

In the study of CEOs mentioned above, each leadership factor that reflects a positive or negative image is also tied to specific behaviors. "That means with awareness and practice, you can change your behavior and improve your leadership image," says Criswell.

Crafting your image requires you first to gain a clear picture of the image people currently are perceiving, then to decide what image you would like to portray and, finally, to develop the skills
to close the gap.

Image and Authenticity

Many executives who attend CCL's Leadership at the Peak program struggle with their authenticity as leaders, especially when dealing with those outside their closest circles. They often feel such a strong need to maintain their executive image that it becomes the number one obstacle to authenticity. They are unsure how to be authentic, genuine leaders and at the same time work to craft their image.

If you are struggling with this quandary, try to rethink your understanding of executive image. "Often, successful people have defined their image more narrowly than they need to. They unnecessarily put tight limits on themselves, trying to maintain a powerful fa├žade," says Criswell.

"We've found that revealing one's personality and humanness is a better sign of effective leadership."

This article is adapted from Building an Authentic Leadership Image, by Corey Criswell and David Campbell (CCL Press, 2008).

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