Does Your Body Speak the Language of a True CEO?

Denise Dudley, Founder, SkillPath Seminars

Does Your Body Speak the Language of a True CEO?

You’re a CEO, and by definition, you do all sorts of CEO-like things. You think like a CEO. You talk like a CEO. (You even read The CEO Magazine!) But are you sure your totally awesome CEO-ness is coming across to others, loud and clear?

People communicate using seven channels: facial expression, eye contact, posture, hand gestures, voice tone, voice loudness, and verbal content. Many of us know to pay close attention to the last component—the words we choose—but we pay little or no attention to how we’re delivering our messages. However, our bodies are actually revealing more about our messages than our voices ever do. Verifiable, replicatable studies show that if subjects are given the choice between what they hear (words and voice tone) and what they see (body language) when being sent a “mixed message,” they go with the visual component 100% of the time.

Translated, when we’re communicating with others, how we look (i.e., our body language) is probably more important than our words, if we intend to be understood, to connect on a meaningful level, and to be seen as effective leaders.

Let’s examine a few simple, easy, and instantly integrable things you can do as a CEO to appear more powerful, in charge, approachable, and charismatic (and yes, like it or not, “charismatic” consistently makes the lists of “top five traits” of successful CEOs).

Open facial expression, combined with leaning forward (just slightly) when listening. Open facial expression means that you deliberately look as if you’re giving your undivided attention to the person (or people) you’re speaking with, that you’re taking in what they’re saying, and that you are not making any dismissive judgments as you’re listening—even if you plan to disagree after they’re finished.  The best way to develop your open facial expression is by practicing in a mirror until you can sense what it feels like. Why? Because some people unconsciously frown or look worried as they’re listening, which can shut down communication. By cultivating an open facial expression, people will be much more relaxed and receptive around you.

In leaning forward, you signal that you’re interested, engaged, and actively listening to others. Most people know what this action feels like, because we do it naturally when we’re truly “present” in a conversation. Leaning forward is a cross-culturally universal component of human body language, which encourages the other person to open up—and workers tend to like and trust leaders who appear to truly listen to them.

Assertive eye contact. It’s important to look people directly in the eyes when you’re interacting with them. There are actually two times when it’s essential: when you’re giving instructions, and when you’re sharing information. But even in general, in order for people to feel as if you’re connecting with them, you must make eye contact. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re interested in what they’re saying, you’re confident about your role as leader, and you’re an open, friendly person. Incidentally, it’s also important to break eye contact, just a tiny bit, or you’ll look intimidating and aggressive. Ideally, assertive eye contact involves looking directly at the person (mostly) and breaking eye contact (a little).

Powerful posture. Your posture counts for a lot. Studies show that people with good posture are seen as more successful, harder working, and more reliable—all desirable traits in a world-class CEO. Relax your arms at your sides (or on your lap or desktop, if sitting), bring your shoulders back, and place your feet slightly apart when standing, or directly on the floor when sitting. With your arms at your sides, rather than in your pockets or folded over your chest, you look open and non-judgmental, ready to receive people wholeheartedly. (And no matter what, avoid playing with your cuticles, jingling the keys in your pocket, or any other form of fidgeting.) Putting your shoulders back signals that you’re comfortable with yourself, able to “own your own space,” confident, and unafraid. Standing with your feet slightly apart (but no exaggerated “block and tackle” stance, or you’ll look menacing) makes you look stable and competent. And placing your feet directly on the floor when sitting signals that you’re in charge of both yourself and the people around you.

Subtle mirroring. Mirroring means reflecting what another person is doing or feeling right now. The simplest description is this: Sit like they sit; speak like they speak. It often happens automatically with highly empathic people, and truly great leaders use this technique consistently. If mirroring is done the right way, the other person will unconsciously feel that you and they are similar, that you understand them, and that you are trustworthy. In a nutshell, you want the other person to identify with you.

Mirroring is best done in very understated, simple ways, and I must add a word of caution: you certainly shouldn’t copy everything another person does—if you’re too obvious, it may seem like you’re mimicking them or that you’re being duplicitous. Instead, subtly adopting just a few of their postures and gestures will show that the two of you are on the same wavelength.

Warm smile. In every culture around the world (including those that have been isolated from other cultures via geographical barriers), smiling is the universal signal for friendliness. There are countless studies on the positive effects of smiling: lowered cortisol levels, increased serotonin levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased blood flow to the brain—for both the smiler and the smilee. What’s more, smiling is literally contagious: a recent study shows that it’s nearly impossible for a person to look at a smiling face and not smile themselves. In short, smiling makes you and everyone around you feel better. But what does smiling do for you as a CEO? Plenty. A smile can help you disarm an opponent, negotiate a contract, connect with a client, lighten tension in a difficult situation, encourage workers to go the extra mile, and make you appear relaxed and comfortable in your position of power and authority.

So there you have it. Positive body language can help you be more believable, trustworthy, reliable, credible, and likable. It can help you do your job better on all fronts (including customer satisfaction and profitability), and can make your workers more likely to willingly follow you—and isn’t that what being a great CEO is all about?

About the Author

Denise Dudley is a professional trainer and keynote speaker, author, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, the largest public training company in the world, which provides 18,000 seminars per year, and has trained over 12 million people in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Denise holds a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, a hospital administrator's license, a preceptor for administrators-in-training license, and is licensed to provide training to medical professionals in the United States and Canada. Denise speaks all over the world on a variety of topics, including body language, management and supervision skills, leadership, assertiveness, time management, stress management, communication, business writing and personal relationships.  Her website is