New research suggests that you may be able to think your way to being more “leaderly” by changing your how you think about yourself.
Perhaps you just returned from the American Library Association Midwinter conference. As a member of multiple committees and discussion groups, and even in some informal gatherings, you looked forward to opportunities to emerge as a leader. How did that go? Did you speak up at the right times? Did you make effective use of those chances to develop yourself as a leader? If others in the meeting were polled, would they identify you as one of the group leaders?
The post-conference period is a good time for reflection. Among all the reasons we attend library conferences, a less recognized one is the opportunity to accept leadership responsibility and to improve our performance and presence as a leader through authentic practice. If you felt less than satisfied with your progress at the conference, are you able to identify what factors held you back? Whatever it might have been, don’t despair. The good news is that there are some research-based strategies that may help you to improve your presence.
What Does Leaderly Look Like?
It’s more than conference meetings. Many aspiring leaders want to take more leadership responsibility at work, and that means establishing your leaderly qualities in team projects and meetings. Technically, “leaderly” is not a real word, at least not one that shows up in dictionaries. You know what I mean, though. If you carry yourself like a leader, and more importantly, if others perceive you as a leader, than you are probably demonstrating leaderly ability. In the leadership literature, the closest thing is “presence”. It’s not uncommon for librarians to worry about their leadership presence. We want to take on leadership roles, but we wonder if we will be “leaderly” enough to influence others to follow with confidence. We may be worried that we’ll do or say the wrong thing and end up looking foolish.
When it comes to leadership presence, most of the advice tends to address the more physical attributes. Do you wear the right clothes? Do you speak with authority? Does you communicate confidence and charisma? Do you have good posture? No one wants a slouchy leader. Some factors are beyond our control. Race, gender, and even physical attractiveness all effect how others perceive you as a leader, and contribute to our natural presence or lack thereof. Even if all these factors are working against you, there may be something you can do to exert your leadership presence. You need to take control of the attitude you bring to group interaction.
Adopt a Proactive Mindset
According to research shared in the article “Be Seen As a Leader” by Adam Galinsky and Gavin Kilduff, there is a simple exercise you can practice to improve your presence and increase your leaderly attributes. The techniques are equally available to all of us, because they are completely detached from our physical appearance. In this case, it really is all in your mind. According to Galinsky and Kilduff, anyone can achieve higher leadership presence on a team by creating a temporary shift in their mindset. By adopting a different attitude, something completely under our own control, an individual can make a better first impression, establish some leadership credibility, and improve on it over time. There are three self-triggered psychological states that produced positive results in multiple experiments: Goals; Happiness; Power. The theory suggests that positive thinking about these three psychological states activates a region of the brain that reduces stress, along with increasing optimism and confidence. Together, these emotional states can lead to overcoming barriers to achieving a leaderly presence.
Putting it into Practice
So how does this work? The idea is that thinking about goals, happiness, and power will increase personal proactive behavior and boost status. In their experiments, Galinsky and Kilduff asked subjects to write a few paragraphs describing their aspirations and life goals. They were also asked to describe a past situation where they had power over another person or events that left them excited and happy. In team tasks requiring a group decision, those asked to focus on power, goals, and happiness earned higher status in the group. Those who primed themselves in advance for proactive behavior spoke more assertively than others. These researchers concluded that individuals can push themselves into the kind of proactivity that marks them as someone others will want to follow.
One Small Catch
Thinking your way to better leadership sounds like a great idea. But does it really work? Maybe. The problem thus far is that the researchers have only tested their theories in lab experiments. They say they “can’t promise miraculous results.” Despite that, I think these priming techniques offer real possibility for those aspiring leaders seeking guidance. It’s a time-tested idea from other activities such as athletics or giving presentations. Visualizing ourselves achieving at a high level, perhaps wowing the audience at a presentation, may actually benefit our real-time performance. If all this requires is taking fifteen minutes to write a paragraph articulating our goals, power, or happiness, that is a minimal time investment. It’s unclear if it will work for everyone, or work at all, but with little to lose, it seems that priming is a worthwhile exercise for those who want to gain an edge in becoming more leaderly. As the researchers say, you can’t change who you are but you can change what you think—and you can put that to the test in your next meeting.