Why appearances matter in the workplace; John Eales on the perils of passion
IFIRST began noticing the impact of bodies and an imposing physical presence in leadership due to my own particular shortcomings in that department. More than once, leaders and students of leadership have contacted me, keen to meet and talk about my work, which had influenced them in some positive way or another. When some met me they couldn’t stop themselves blurting out something like, “But you’re so small!” and then go on to add hurriedly, “Never mind, you project big!”
I wasn’t necessarily consoled by this reaction. It underlined clearly for me that while societies expect that leaders will be tall, imposing or charismatic, we don’t own up to this expectation. This is despite the evidence of studies showing that, if you are a Western male manager, you are much more likely to be appointed to leadership – and to be paid more – if you are more than 183cm tall. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes this as the “Warren Harding Error” or the tendency to impute leadership to “tall, dark and handsome men”. Western societies accord leadership to men who fit such a profile, even if, as in the case of American president Warren Harding, he never once demonstrated leadership qualities or abilities.
The myth that bodies are irrelevant in leadership is an understandable response for those who wish it were the case. This includes all those women and men of varied physical abilities, of different racial and cultural backgrounds, who don’t “fit” the template of physical attractiveness that societies and organisations recognise as “leadership material”. When we choose leaders, it should be experience and capabilities that matter, but study after study has shown that attractiveness, or otherwise, is often implicit in judgments of leadership ability.
This is particularly the case for women leaders. My own and other research has demonstrated that a vicious cycle occurs where women experience higher scrutiny of their bodies in leadership. They are told they must choose a careful wardrobe and refine their media skills, not look too ambitious or self-serving. Yet they are also told they mustn’t look like they are worrying about how they look! If so, they are typically judged vain or self-absorbed.
A Harvard study gave young entrepreneurs identical “pitches” to make to potential investors. The women were judged less deserving of financial support than the men and, if they were attractive, they encountered a further penalty – presumably for having got to where they were because of their looks. In contrast, attractive men were judged as most likely to succeed.
One response to this is to insist, and act as if, bodies don’t matter in leadership. I argue that the separation in much of leadership theory between mind and body is deeply unhelpful to those interested in leading mindfully. To lead with mindfulness does not mean to ignore the body. Rather, the body is a source of valuable information about us and others, often made available to us in ways not registered in the conscious mind.
The value of being present – taking the trouble to physically “be there” – is a central plank of leadership. It’s been enshrined in the idea of MBWA (management by walking around) and the decision that many new and long-standing leaders make to systematically and regularly visit and talk to employees and clients. This tells people they matter, at least as much as board members or mountains of emails. Second, it signals courage and a willingness to literally stand before others as one is, without the protections of staff or corner offices in security-protected top floors. In this sense, being there in body is a political, democratising action for leaders.
Looking after the people in one’s organisation or sphere of influence is probably the most basic responsibility of leadership. Being open to this responsibility doesn’t always mean protecting. In fact, it is often about challenging and supporting others to take calculated risks, to do things they may find difficult. Indigenous leader and school principal
Chris Sarra got into trouble for his sometimes physical ways of tackling a distinctly physical problem: student absenteeism. He set about shifting the school culture to one that valued physical presence, rewarding attendance and improving the school grounds to make it a good place for kids to hang out after hours because home was not always welcoming. He also used his own physicality, as a respected rugby league player, to inspire the kids towards self-respect and achievement.
In my experience, many leaders “get” that the job is physical. They experience the negative physical effects of working long hours, of unrelenting pressure and the toll of stress and absences on themselves and their families.
Looking after oneself, and being caring and thoughtful about the physical well-being of those with whom one works, is valuable in and of itself. Of course, this must not be intrusive or experienced as unwanted solicitousness. Yet people who work in physically demanding occupations, such as police and correctional officers, are often working in cultures that are punishing and abusive. It is valuable to help them find ways of delivering leadership and what they need to do physically without mirroring punishing or self-punishing norms. In this view, good leadership is not about physically disciplining ourselves to get through the work. Rather, it is about shifting the emphasis in doing the work to enable others to be both effective and to look after themselves. I am not underestimating the difficulty of modelling supportive leadership in a culture which is punishing or neglectful. But I have learned that sometimes physical gestures, acts of care towards self and others, may be both radical and substantial in their positive impacts.
Throughout the past decade I have taught yoga alongside my leadership teaching, and have sometimes come away feeling that I did far more good in that 60 minutes of breathing, stretching and relaxing than in a whole term of leadership classes. In the four-day Mindful Leadership program that Richard Searle and I have offered, I lead a daily yoga class. For many participants, it is the first time they have ever encountered yoga. Some have physical constraints (for example, have had knee or hip surgery), others feel physically embarrassed and awkward. They often feel, and say, they “can’t do” yoga! Yet when we work together gently stretching and feeling our breath and bodies, participants almost always experience the connection to their physicality positively. They will leave a session or class feeling more settled, able to accept and embrace whatever life is presenting them.
Emerging neuroscientific data supports that physical activities such as yoga change brain structures with associated improvements in emotional state and executive and cognitive functions. A pilot study showed participants in a yoga program later registered less anxiety and depression. Subsequent studies reported improved brain functioning in older adults as a result of an eight-week yoga course. Working memory capacity and task switching, two measures of executive function, both improved. The research that doctor and author Norman Doidge explores in his two books, The Brain that Changes Itself and The Brain’s
Way of Healing, provide further evidence and case studies of the complex interactions between mind and body. Simple activities, such as walking and exercising targeted muscles, restore and enhance brain activity and broader functioning.
Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.