In times of heightened uncertainty, we rely on our leaders to be calm, reassuring and confident. Words can only do so much. It’s the first and overall impression we create when speaking about such fearful things, such as COVID-19, bushfires, floods – as is fast becoming our new normal here in Australia.
Your image, of which appearance is a dominant first filter for others when evaluating you, becomes even more critical. And the goal is to avoid distractions at all costs, or messages can be lost.
Seemingly trivial things like your hair – is it covering your face too much, subconsciously sending a message of ‘hiding’. It could be the crumpled suit, suggesting your life is so out of control right now, you’ve slept in what you wore yesterday. Your eyes darting around the room, implying you’re looking for an escape route. Or the sweat on your brow, revealing you’re nervous, or, sick. These are all details guaranteed to distract your audience and take the focus away from the more important messages that need to be delivered.
Let’s think back to the bushfire crisis for a moment and the overall (and for many people, first) impression that New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons created when he fronted the many media conferences. For many, he has become the finest role model of a leader during a crisis – the ‘first amongst equals’ as CEO magazine described him in a recent profile. He was calm, professional, and authentic.
We trusted, believed, and were comforted by him. Why?
In my world of image and executive presence, he was in what I describe as, ‘total alignment.’ By that I mean his A (appearance), B (Behaviour), C (communication) and D (Digital Presence) were working together in harmony. His Appearance was appropriate – yes, a uniform, but we expect this. Furthermore, it fitted properly, with nothing out of place or distracting; his Behaviour was appropriate, dignified, professional, and rational; his Communication was appropriate, compassionate, clear, and calming; his digital presence was in alignment, with images and updates presented in a consistent way.
When A, B, C & D are consistent, the chances of miscommunication are lessened considerably, and, most important of all, trust – the commodity of a crisis – is heightened.
One of my clients, a finance executive, leads a large team that is currently facing significant disruption as a result of COVID-19. All eyes are on him, every single day. And it occurred to me this week, regardless of this disruption, whenever we are in contact, whether face-to-face or digitally, he is carefully and considerately dressed for his audience, a picture of grace, and always fully present. This is the stuff of great leaders, particularly during these uncertain times. And it is no surprise to me that he is being headhunted for bigger roles.
So, whether you’re thinking about your future with the threat of a significant economic downturn and going for that all-important promotion, or needing to calm people about COVID-19, I encourage you to think holistically about your image. Do whatever you can to ensure that your ABC(+D) are in alignment and that your first impression hits the right note. Right now, we need leaders to be a ‘first among equals’.
Leaders, dress with respect for yourself and your audience. Use open, confident and engaging body language. Communicate clearly, authentically and with consistent messaging. And in this age of instant digital communication, do whatever you can to help ensure that your digital footprint is a match with the leader we see in front of us.
Here’s to more alignment and careful, strategic decision-making about the imprint you’re leaving in the minds of others. Lives depend on it.