Showing Up As A Leader: Traits to Adopt & Bad Habits to Banish as you Advance at Work (and in Life!)

My law school students encouraged me to publish this one: a few tips on how to inspire confidence in and ensure unintended habits don’t hold you back.


Maintain Eye Contact

Learn how to hold eye contact throughout an entire communication — both as the speaker and the listener. It can be uncomfortable, particularly during the speaking part, but this can be mastered with practice. What is more uncomfortable is trying to communicate with someone only to have them not believe you/trust you/want to continue working with/communicating with you because you seem all over the place or lacking conviction. Be confident. Convey calm interest and undivided attention. You got it. Practice on friends/family if you must. Master this.

Consistently Offer Solid Handshakes

First impressions count. A lot. When you meet someone for the first time, and shake hands, stand tall, hold their hand firmly, and look them in the eyes. A weak handshake says a lot you don’t want to say about yourself in a first meeting — particularly in a business context.

Maintain Good Posture

Sit and stand up straight. Slouching says I am bored, tired, meek, not interested, not engaged, and many other things you don’t need or want to say about yourself. Good posture signals attention, respect, interest, and signals confidence.

Send Only Concise, Proof-Read Emails

Use email to communicate clearly and concisely. Recipients should be able to grok your message in no more than one to two sentences with elaboration below only if necessary. If concise communication is not natural for you, compose your email, run a word count, then take the time to shorten it in half. Then shorten it in half again. It might take hours to complete this exercise when you start but it gets easier. More concise communication will come naturally over time — with practice. The return on this investment is real in that your communication will be better received and more effective — and more people will actually read your emails because they’ll expect concise, well-delivered value when they see your name in their inbox.

Deflect Praise

This is a big one. I learned this one while working closely with a highly regarded executive over a decade ago. His sales team was killing it and he was being publicly recognized for his success by the CEO and board. He refused to accept the recognition and deflected it to his team members, naming them individually and citing their role in various achievements in a public forum. Leaders don’t do this for optics, real leaders deflect praise because they earnestly believe it. We are only as good as the team(s) we support. Always.

Hire People Smarter Than You

You are empowered to hire talent because your superiors have confidence in you and want you to expand your scope of influence. Your value is a direct result of the team(s) you build. I try to only hire people I could see being promoted to take my job someday. You’ll be thrilled with their performance, they’ll help you advance your goals, and if and when you move on, you’ll be leaving your company and team with a solid bench of talent to choose from for the next era of leadership.


Start with “FWIW”

Never start emails or spoken statements with “For what it is worth” or “FWIW.” This signals insecurity about what you are saying. It tells the reader or the listener — before you’ve even said what you are about to say — that you don’t think what you are communicating is worth much. Banish it from your vocabulary. Say what you are going to say and if you don’t think its worth the airtime, don’t and wait until you have something you do.

Or “I was just going to say…”

What? You were going to say it? Until when? What changed your mind and made you decide to say it? Why are you apologizing? Say it. Or don’t. But don’t tell us that you don’t think it is that important or the moment of relevance has passed then say it anyway. Sadly, this has become a filler (like “um”) or a way to acknowledge the perfect moment for the comment may have passed. Your comment or question is likely still a great one! Skip this part and get to your point.

Or “This might be a stupid question, but…”

No one has ever answered a question that started with this statement with agreement “Yep, a stupid question, but I’ll answer it anyway.” It is almost always a good question. Questions, intelligent sounding or not, signal that you care and that you are invested in better understanding the topic at hand. Stop apologizing for your signal of investment in the substance of a conversation. If it is a conversation with more than a few people in the room there is a high likelihood someone else has the same question and will be relieved you asked it.

End Anything with “…”

Rarely, and I mean very rarely, end a sentence or worse an entire email with “…” This says “there might be more to say here, but I can’t figure out how to say it, or I’m afraid to.” Trailing communications are incomplete and lack clarity. Say what you need to say. End it with a single period and move on.

Be Afraid to Say “I Don’t Know”

For many years I was pretty insecure about my worthiness of my leadership roles. I had a wicked case of the Impostor Syndrome — and can’t say I’m completely rid of that affliction. There were all kinds of negative consequences of this sense of inadequacy, but among the worst was my fear of saying “I don’t know.”

As we move up in our careers, we are (hopefully) exposed to new challenges, new roles and responsibilities. Inevitably, this means being out of one’s comfort zone. Probably a lot. It is natural for many of us to adopt a fake it until you make it approach to survive these transitions; we feign confidence or expertise around topics we really don’t know enough about, yet.

The problem with this approach is that you are gradually undermining the trust your superiors, peers, reports — and others have in you. How could you know everything? You can’t. When you authentically and appropriately respond to a question with “I don’t know” it (1) gives you time to chase down what you need to report back with confidence and (2) actually builds trust and respect among those around you — particularly the inquirer. In an interesting twist, the more confident and capable we become the easier it is to acknowledge we don’t know everything. It is okay. No one knows it all. Own it. Then when you do answer with substance and confidence it will be authentic and valuable — and recognized as such.

For more on how we show up shapes us, see Amy Cuddy’s TED talk here.

For a collection of published content about women and leadership— curated by some of the powerful women I have the privilege of working with at Flipboard check out our Feathers & Steel Flipboard Magazine (best on mobile).

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