Monday, August 11, 2008

Building a Leader's Image

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

Self-absorption.
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 façade," says Criswell.
"We've found that revealing one's personality and humanness is a better sign of effective
leadership."

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