Looking Like a Leader Doesn’t Make You a Leader at All

© Nikon'as - Fotolia.com
© Nikon'as - Fotolia.com

What is it about The Wall Street Journal these days? More and more often, I’m finding things they write that just make me want to scream.

Here’s the latest: According to a WSJ story from last month — titled How to Look and Act Like a Leader –“Savvy executives know the part, act the part and look the part. That’s because they exude “executive presence,” a broad term used to describe the aura of leadership.”

All of that is true of course, but it conveniently misses a bigger point — looking and acting like a leader doesn’t necessarily make you a leader any more than dressing in some NBA high-priced gear enables you to go one-on-one with Kobe Bryant.

Does looking good make you a better leader?

I get that looking and acting the part can be an important factor in leadership success, but style and presence will only take you so far. And you can exude all the “aura of leadership” you want, but how much good will it do if you look nice but really you’re just an empty suit with marginal skills, incapable of leading anyone to the break room for a donut?

The Journal article spends a lot of time on the notion of “presence,” pointing to a study that says that, “Executives with presence act self confident, strategic, decisive and assertive.” It adds that for one Sara Lee executive, “an image makeover helped her gain the managerial gravitas that she needed to advance further up the ladder.”

Please don’t misunderstand me; I know that looking the part of an executive can be important, but how many times have you seen (or maybe even worked with) a frumpy looking person with poor executive presence who some way, some how, could inspire and lead people to do amazing things? How many times have you seen someone who hardly looked like a classic leader yet could inspire people to follow them over a cliff?

I used to work for a Fortune 500 company that was obsessed with the notion of “executive presence,” especially at the corporate level. I’m not sure why they hired me, but I have always had the knack of getting a lot more out of my staffs than others expect. I was able to do it for them in a couple of really difficult situations by rallying the troops and getting them to work a lot harder without them hating me for it.

But I never really could move very far up the ladder at this company because I didn’t have the kind of stereotypical “executive presence” they were looking for.

Learning a lesson from “Mr. Presence”

I learned this by watching one of the most successful editors in the company operate. I always called him “Mr.Presence.”

He was tall, tanned, rugged, good looking, well-spoken. He had more “executive presence” in his little finger than most people have in their whole body, but despite his movie star-looks, he was also one of the most shallow and self-serving individuals that I have ever known. Plus, he didn’t seen to have much in the way of true leadership abilities that I could see.

A few years later, I worked with a guy who had worked under “Mr. Presence” for a few years, and he confirmed what I always thought: although corporate management loved this guy and lauded his style, just about anyone who actually worked for him felt he was aloof, unapproachable, and 99 cents short of a dollar when it came to leadership ability.

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“Brad (not his real name) looks good and speaks well,” my friend told me, “but in day-to-day work with the staff, he grates on people, can’t make a decision, and has the attention span of a gnat.”

“Mr. Presence” had a lot of clout with the corporate suits, but the fact that they were so impressed by this guy made me understand that competence and leadership ability wasn’t what something they really valued — but looking good and speaking well was, even if you were as shallow as the Rio Grande.

What would Peter Drucker say?

Yes, you can go a lot further up the executive ladder if you have “presence,” but not all organizations are as shallow in their corporate mindset as the one I worked for. Most successful, forward-thinking companies will demand a lot more out of their budding leaders than the “power image” The Wall Street Journal is touting — perhaps even some actual ability to lead people to do more than they think they can.

Real leadership is hard, and it’s not something that you can easily get coached about, go to a workshop for, or perhaps even read a lame article about. It’s like what the late, great Peter Drucker, the “creator and inventor of modern management,” once said:

Leadership is not magnetic personality — that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not “making friends and influencing people” — that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Drucker also said that,

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked. Leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”

My guess is that Drucker would rightly pooh-pooh the notion of overly focusing on “executive presence.” That’s something that you — and perhaps The Wall Street Journal –– would do well to do avoid, too. REAL leadership is about doing, and all the “executive presence” in the world won’t help you with that.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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1 Comment on “Looking Like a Leader Doesn’t Make You a Leader at All

  1. You hear this from political pundits a lot. After a debate or something, they’ll say, “She looked like a president.” Or, “he looked like you could envision him in the Oval Office. He has the presidential feel that people want” and so on.  I couldn’t care less what a president looks like; an appearance isn’t leadership. Also, in business, leadership is often confused with personality. If someone is perceived as loud or outgoing or similar, that’s somehow equated with “executive” or “manager” or “promotion.” It’s about doing – as you said – not looking.

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