Perceptions Matter

Perceptions Matter | Human Resource Executive Online Based on a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, this article excerpt offers reasons why leaders should consider their image -- and ways to manage it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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This excerpt from Building an Authentic Leadership Image was written by Corey Criswell and David Campbell of the Center for Creative Leadership:

A Leader's Image

Your image is the concept that others form about you as a result of the impressions you make on them. Your effectiveness as a leader is tied to your image. Your ability to project a leadership presence in the eyes of employees, customers, other important constituencies, and the general public is closely related to your ability to do your job well.

Your image, then, can be either an asset or a liability as you engage in the tasks and roles of leadership.

Many people make the mistake of assuming that paying attention to image building is superficial and therefore unimportant. However, leaders can benefit from knowing how they come across to others and making improvements if necessary.

A study of 150 senior executives who attended the Center for Creative Leadership's Leadership at the Peak program shows that the image leaders convey has a significant correlation to perceptions of their leadership skill.

In this study, leaders who conveyed a strong vision were rated higher on several important factors than those who conveyed a weaker vision --- factors 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.

Each of these factors is tied to specific behaviors and can therefore be improved through awareness and practice.

Image is commonly thought of as being based on various external aspects of a person, such as physical appearance or formal status. Your image is affected by these elements, but it is also affected by any impression you make on others. Your personality, behavior, body language and speaking style all contribute to your image.

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.

In the short term, image is important because you have only a few minutes to interact before others draw conclusions about you. In the long term, your image is tied to your credibility and effectiveness. In particular, people value consistency in what you say, what you do and how you appear.

Fortunately, you can have a great deal of control over the image others have of you. Laura Morgan Roberts of Harvard Business School puts it this way: "People manage impressions through their nonverbal behavior (appearance, demeanor), verbal cues (vocal pitch, tone, and rate of speech, grammar and diction, disclosures) and demonstrative acts (citizenship, job performance)."

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

Why Manage Image?

Why should leaders focus on understanding and managing their image? Here are several reasons:

You already have an image. The question is whether it's the image you want and need to have to be an effective leader.

People form opinions of others all the time. By being mindful of your current image and taking a proactive approach to improve where necessary, you can close the gap between the way others perceive you and your desired image.

This is particularly important in today's large, geographically dispersed organizations where employees may spend little time with senior managers and, therefore, see them only in limited contexts.

People will make assumptions about you.

In the absence of solid information and frequent communication, people often make assumptions. And what they invent is likely to be a distortion of the truth. Your image as a leader runs the same risk. In the absence of credible information and personal insight about contacts with you, people may reach erroneous conclusions about who you are, what your values are, what kind of leader you are and how well you are doing in your job.

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Your image speaks louder than you do.

You may spend a lot of time creating and polishing what you have to say -- preparing documents and presentations, crafting your message. But all that information is interpreted in the context of who you are -- more precisely, who people think you are.

How you say something has a great impact on what people hear you say. Your message is carried strongly by intonation, body language and demeanor. Your words, actions and manner need to be congruent; otherwise you will be doubted.

People seek personal connections.

Image is interpreted through the lens of personal preference. Your image is often greatly influenced by your personal connections with others, or their being able to identify with you in some personal way.

People have high expectations.

We want leaders to be likeable, personable, regular people; at the same time we want them to be above reproach, better than average and demonstrative of our high standards. In the days of YouTube and MySpace, camera and video phones, and instant communication, a leader's image can be tanked or tarnished with one misstep or incongruous action. Impressions can be hard to live down.

Long careers demand investment.

You invest in your career in many ways: education and training, experience, networking, and goal setting. Don't let a negative or poor image limit or sabotage your leadership potential. Just as you pay attention to developing the technical expertise and interpersonal skills needed to be successful in your job, you should develop your image in a way that serves you as a leader.

Your image affects the performance of the people around you, especially your direct reports.

If you come across as a person who is productive, optimistic, thorough and fair, these characteristics will be seen as desirable among your direct reports. The reverse is also true. Scheming and sloppiness can also be transmitted.

This is an excerpt from Building an Authentic Leadership Image, an "Ideas in Action Guidebook," copyright 2008, Center for Creative Leadership. Published with permission.

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