Four Power Cues for Leaders

posture, body language

When I was 17, three events led to my lifelong interest in body language and communication.

The Dalai Lama became a hero to me. I read a book about the Dalai Lama, whose escape from Tibet under threat from the Chinese was both terrifying and heroic. The fact that he could then become an apostle of peace and brotherhood in the world made him a hero of mine.

Six years later, I went to hear him speak. He was an hour late, but we all waited. When he arrived, he walked to the middle of the stage and sat down on the floor—and then he didn’t say anything. He just looked at
us for about four minutes, and it felt like an eternity.

Then he let out this unearthly laugh and said, “I better say something really intelligent, because I kept you waiting for so long.” He gave a fine speech on Buddhism, but the real power of that experience was in those four minutes of silence. As he looked at us, it felt like he made a connection with each person in the audience. I wondered: “How did he do that? What did he share with us silently that was so powerful?”

I learned my father was gay. At Christmas, I bought my dad a book I found in the bookstore by E.M. Forster, “Maurice.” The book wasn’t published until about 50 years after Forster’s death, because of its homosexual theme. I had been dimly aware of the back story, but I just thought “great writer” and wrapped it up to give to my dad.

When he opened it, he gave me this funny look. It was just a brief glance, but something about it made a wheel turn in my head and I just knew my dad was gay. When he really came out to me 10 years later, he hemmed and hawed—and I finally told him that I already knew based on that look at Christmas.

He didn’t remember the moment, and I thought, “Extraordinary, how can somebody reveal a lifetime of secrecy in a glance and not be aware of it? What is going on there in terms of the body language—signals sent, signals received—that the sender isn’t even aware of?”

I died. I went tobogganing just after that Christmas, and my friends challenged the daredevil in me to go down by myself. I didn’t even make it around the second turn. I crashed into a tree head first and fractured my skull.

I was in a coma for about a week, and I even flatlined for about 15 minutes. After surgery, I came to and passed the basic tests they give you for neurological events. But I didn’t know how to vocalize something that had changed: I could no longer read people’s body language in the way everybody else could. You know how you can walk into a room of colleagues or family and can get a read on whether people are happy or sad without anything being said? That was gone for me. Also, while I could hear the words people were saying, I couldn’t hear any of the emotion behind it, such as sarcasm or irony. For a 17-year-old, that’s really important because you are often mostly humorous, ironic or sarcastic. (I’ve since been told that what I was experiencing is similar to some forms of autism.)

I started studying people’s body language very closely to try to figure out what was going on. I spent many months retraining myself, and it eventually came back.

Together those three events taught me about aspects of body language and communication—and specifically how we create meaning, make decisions and express emotion through communication. We’ve evolved so that all of those things are expressed largely unconsciously and they are out of our conscious control.

The Vast Unconscious

Your unconscious mind can handle somewhere near 11 million bits of information in a second. It’s always scanning the surroundings, reading the intent and emotions of the people around us and seeing whether they present a danger or not. Our conscious minds, by contrast, can only handle about 40 bits of information per second.

When we were largely reactive cave people, it made a lot of sense to have feelings like uneasiness be unconscious. If you’re being chased by a woolly mammoth, you don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking consciously about it, you just want your unconscious mind to get you the heck out of there.

But in the modern era, there is a lot that it would be better to be more consciously aware of. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to consciously control our emotions? Or the meaning we interpret or present when people talk to us?

I worked with an executive who was cool in crisis and was therefore promoted throughout his career in the utility industry—a good place to be cool in crisis. But then he was promoted to a very high level that reported to the board, and the board said, “We no longer want you to be cool in crisis. We want you to be more motivational, emotional and supportive of your team.” So he suddenly had to learn to take conscious control of his emotions and express them better than he had before.

In another instance of trying to become conscious of what is mostly an unconscious act, I did some work with the U.S. Air Force Special Ops a few years ago. A team was being trained to go into an undisclosed foreign country and set up infrastructure like airfields and even a small town. They had to work with the local population, and so they wanted to know how to read the intent of the population before action was taken. Basically, if someone in this country is coming toward me, I want to know if this person intends to shoot me or shake my hand.

Again, that’s largely conveyed by unconscious body language. And as adults, we learn to disguise that body language to a certain extent. We learn to compose our faces. So if we’re sitting in a meeting and the meeting is boring, we don’t make the kind of faces that children do when they get bored—because we’ve learned to be polite. But our bodies still tend to give us away, largely unconsciously.

I’m going to share four power cues that can help you to control the elements of communication.

1. Become Aware of Your Own Body Language

When I talk about this in a presentation, I ask the audience to freeze in place. I then ask them to notice how they are standing or sitting, if their shoulders are slumped, if their backs are straight and if their heads are pitched forward. (Of course, sometimes people move and adopt better posture.)

The point is to become more aware of your posture, because that’s the first way you signal your intent and your emotions to people. We each have “mirror neurons” in our heads: When we see somebody else experience an emotion, we fire that same emotion in our head. We’re empaths, picking up each other’s emotions and leaking emotions to each other.

For an important meeting, you need to think about your emotional state; otherwise you’re leaving it to chance. Maybe you’re nervous about the meeting—then you’re going to leak that mishmash to the other attendees. It’s not charismatic, and it doesn’t set you up to be a leader.

posture, body language
Photo By Creating a Brand on Unsplash

Being aware of my own body language helped me land a job a few years ago.

I met the executive at a midscale seafood restaurant here in Boston—and he ordered the biggest lobster on the menu for me.

I didn’t know that in the few years since I’d last eaten lobster, I had become allergic to it. So I started eating the lobster and my throat started to close and I began to choke and turn red. But I really wanted the job, so I excused myself and got sick in the bathroom—and then continued the interview.

I was determined to get the job. I began mirroring the interviewer’s behavior across the table to gain his trust. (You have to do this subtly, because if you do it too obviously you’ll look odd and the other person will catch on to what you’re doing.)

When we see someone mirroring our behavior, we don’t think about it consciously—only unconsciously. Then what happens is you start to trust that person, because when two bodies move in the same way, they are saying, “We are in agreement; we’re in sync here.” You see this with two people who trust each other completely. They make the same gesture virtually at the same instant. It’s very hard to tell who leads and who follows. It’s really a beautiful sort of synchrony to watch.

So that’s what I was doing with my interviewer, mirroring him until he began to feel that he could trust me and that I was in agreement with him—which meant I would be a good hire.

2. Focus Your Emotions

People often ask me what charisma is and if it’s something only a few lucky people, like movie stars, are born with. The answer is no. We are all occasionally charismatic.

Look back to when you were a child at school and something wonderful or terrible happened. You came home and you were full of that emotion, whether it was joy or sadness.

Because you were so focused and so completely engulfed in that emotion, your parents probably looked at you and asked you what happened. They wanted to know what was going on. They could tell you had experienced something because you were radiating a strong emotion. That’s charisma; it is focused emotion.

Once you become more aware of how you show up, you can start to change and control charisma by focusing your emotions before important meetings, speeches, big negotiations or conversations with higher ups—anything that you feel is important where you want to show up with a powerful, strong presence. The work involved is focusing your emotion beforehand.

I often ask people about their presentations, because most people in the business world have to do those at one time or another: “How much time in preparing for a presentation do you spend thinking about the content and how much time do you spend thinking about the body language?” The real, honest answer is always 100 percent on content, 0 percent on body language. But when those two things are aligned, the body language will always trump the content if you don’t focus your emotions.

3. Learn to Read Other People

You also need to notice the unconscious signals that other people are sending. You’ll begin to be able to recognize and understand what others are thinking before they even know it. That’s because emotional attitudes and decisions are made unconsciously at first, then gestured about and then brought to the conscious mind. You’ll learn to see the attitude or decision at the gesture stage, before the other person is aware.

This helped me quite literally survive my interview at the lobster restaurant. After mirroring my interviewer’s gestures for a while, I eventually started making new gestures—and he started mirroring mine. As soon as he did that, I knew I could stop eating that lobster and relax, because he was going to give me the job. Sure enough, he called me the next morning with the offer.

This is not manipulation in that you can’t make people do something they don’t want to do. It was within that man’s power to offer me the job. And by mirroring his behavior and making him feel like he could trust me, I greatly accelerated that process and enabled him to come to a decision. Had I been nervous and twitchy and not given attention to body language, I might not have built up that trust or gotten the offer. You can actually read people’s minds and know what they’re thinking—and you can use that knowledge to build agreement and alignment with them.

4. Put It All Together with Powerful Stories

Uri Hasson at Princeton University found that when we tell each other stories, our brains match each other, looking exactly the same on a brain scan. And so as a leader, if you tell somebody a good, strong story to get them enthusiastic about a job you want them to do or a product you want them to help develop, then you can make them think the way you think. It’s a literal, actual version of that Jedi mind control trick.

Hasson’s research also shows that if you tell somebody a good story, the listeners are actually a nanosecond or two ahead of the storyteller. Not only do you have them lined up with you, but they’re pulling you along at that point. It’s like a kid who knows you’re heading toward the ice cream store and they’re tugging you along, saying, “Hurry up!” You’re not only making them think in a certain way, but they are doing a lot of the work for you.

The whole point of power cues is really to enable us to become aware of the unconscious signals we’re sending out so that we can control them and put them in service of powerful storytelling.

Once you’ve got the steps that have to do with body language mastered, you can be an effective storyteller and leader by aligning your body language so that it is in service to that content.

There are five basic powerful stories we tell each other that are buried so deep in our psyches, because we’ve heard them in one form or another so often, that they affect the way we see reality. We have no actual control over reality, but these stories give us an illusion of control. We tell ourselves these stories to help us structure reality, to help make sense of it.

If you tell one of these five types of stories and tell it well, then as a leader or as anyone trying to get something done in an organization, you’re much more likely to have the effect that you want.

The quest. This is the story that’s familiar from so many Hollywood movies. A hero goes out to try to achieve a specific goal that we find alluring. When we tell a quest story, we know that the journey is going to have lots of ups and downs along the way. But we believe that the harder we work to reach the goal, the more likely we are to achieve it. Now that’s not strictly, logically true. A student who heads off to college with good intentions and works really hard could still have plenty of things go wrong. But we don’t include that in our thinking about it. We tell ourselves quest stories because they are what enable us to have a belief that hard work pays off in reaching a desirable goal. And it’s important to believe, otherwise we wouldn’t try, work hard and keep persevering.

So it’s a story, but it’s also part of a deeper belief system—and that’s why it’s so powerful. When you tell a good quest story, people love it, listen and want to get involved.

Stranger in a strange land. In this type of story, there isn’t a particular goal at the end. Some kind of change is foisted upon the hero and the rules are changed. The classic example of this in the business world is 2008, when the economy melted down. Suddenly, everybody was wondering if there was a new normal. Do the old economic rules no longer apply? Are we going to have to learn new ways of doing business?

The stranger in a strange land is thrown into a new situation or a new terrain and has to learn a new way of coping and a new set of rules to become a master in this new landscape. Sometimes a mentor comes along to help us, and sometimes we must do it on our own. And so the stranger-in-a-strange land story helps us cope with change.

Rags to riches. This is the type of story the networks tell every time the Olympics come around. Every single one of those athlete stories is a rags-to-riches story because the riches aren’t necessarily just money. They can be celebrity status, honors or gold medals. And the difference between a quest and a rags-to-riches story is the plucky hero that achieves the status by hard work and a little bit of luck. And so that’s why the Olympic stories all focus on the time and practice the athletes put in, not on some unique inborn physical attribute that might give them the right physique for a particular event.

If we believe that a gymnast was so talented because her genetic makeup was just suited to gymnastics, we wouldn’t identify as much. We’d think that talent was unattainable to us no matter how hard we worked.

The important thing about the rags-to-riches story is that every man or woman could achieve the same result, provided they put in all the time and had a little luck. We tell our rags-to-riches stories to say that even people born without silver spoons in their mouths can get ahead. It’s a story that isn’t told as much now, because it’s been brought powerfully into question. We’re asking these days if the American dream is still viable, because the times have been hard for many years. Can ordinary people still achieve that kind of wealth? That’s the interesting tension right now in the rags-to-riches story. Does it still work?

Revenge. This is a powerful one right now, because we have a sense that there’s a lot of wickedness in the world between chaotic, random shootings and the digital world’s representation of war and injustices. We’re keenly aware of the need for justice, so the revenge story has power for us.

In the revenge story, the hero sets out to right some wrong. Sometimes it’s a specific villain, but sometimes it’s an institutional villain like a war. And then justice is done. It’s a very important story to us. We need to believe that justice is possible, otherwise we wouldn’t all behave. Why would we play by the rules?

Love story. This is my personal favorite. Hollywood calls it a romantic comedy, and it is considered one of lower movie genres. But it is really important, because at its base, a love story tells us that community is still possible (since the smallest form of human community is two people).

In the traditionally told love story, a boy meets a girl, the boy falls in love with the girl and then the boy does something stupid and they fall out of love. Later, the girl forgives the boy. They now know each other as real, flawed human beings and not just that initial fantasy that they fell in love with. So the girl forgiving the boy is a powerful statement of the possibility of human community. If they can still fall in love again or stay in love despite their flaws, then forgiveness and community is possible. If we didn’t have that story, then perhaps we wouldn’t believe that we humans could remain in a community with one another.

We live in an information-saturated age. We have 24/7 access to enormous amounts of data at our fingertips. We’re completely overloaded with it and our minds are not constructed to remember that stuff.

The mistake that leaders make all the time is they try to give their employees or their people to-do lists: Here are the things we have to do to succeed.

Steve Jobs of Apple was so successful because he didn’t say, “Here are the cool features of the Apple computer.” What he said was, “We can strike a blow against conformism, against Big Brother. We can do something cool and neat. We can create computers that will set you free.”

If leaders tell compelling stories aligned with their body language, they would be much more successful. That communication attaches emotions to events and make them much more memorable.


  • Nick Morgan

    Nick Morgan is a top communication theorist and coach, who is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas?and then deliver them with panache. He served as editor of the Harvard Management Communication Letter from 1998 ? 2003. He is a former fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard?s Kennedy School of Government. After earning his PhD in literature and rhetoric, Nick spent a number of years teaching Shakespeare and public speaking at the University of Virginia, Lehigh University, and Princeton University. He first started writing speeches for Virginia Governor Charles S. Robb and went on to found his own communications consulting organization, Public Words, in 1997. He is the author of ?Working the Room: How to Move People to Action through Audience-Centered Speaking? (Harvard Business Review, 2003) and ?Trust Me? (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Editor?s Note: For more about Power Cues, read Nick Morgan?s book, ?Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact? (Harvard Business Review, 2014).

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